She is probably the only teacher I had whose name I cannot recall, which is a pity because she brought me together with hands down the best young adult mystery book I ever read. Her classroom at Enatai Elementary in Bellevue was at the south end of one of the halls and on the west side. She was an older woman with a pile of gray hair and glasses and she didn’t laugh a lot. I don’t remember her as unkind, just serious. This was sometime during fifth grade, I believe, and it may be that by that time we had a homeroom teacher and then got shipped out for particular subjects. If so, this grand old dame was my “language arts” teacher. Her name might have been Smith.
The way I remember it I was having trouble choosing a book to read for a particular assignment, and Mrs. Smith, if that was her name, assigned me Sinbad and Me by Kin Platt. I remember that the first thing I thought when I went to the Bellevue Public Library to check the book out was that it was intimidatingly thick. I was lazy and didn’t want to read that much.
But Mrs. Smith had read me right, and Sinbad and Me turned out to be thoroughly my book. It had everything I wanted in a story: a one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old mystery, the ghost of a sea captain, a spooky old house on a cliff, pirate treasure, secret passages and secret codes, riddles written on gravestones, a friendly but sad old lady with a secret past, a dangerous tidal cave, and invisible ink! And the hero was a twelve-year-old boy. Actually the hero was his pet English bulldog Sinbad. They solved the mystery together.
The edition I read was a hardback with a library binding in which the jacket illustration had been pasted or laminated permanently on the front. The illustration showed a caricature of a boy who reminded me of Ron Howard — Opie from The Andy Griffith Show — hunched over an old tombstone writing something on a notepad with a big bulldog at his feet.
Years later I wanted to find that book again, for auld lange syne, because I’m sick that way. After the Internet came out (“the Internet! Is that thing still around?!” — Homer Simpson), but long before I had children — even before I was married — I looked it up on the pre-Amazon Bibliofind and discovered that it was out of print. Way out of print, like if you could find a ratty paperback you’d pay sixty to seventy-five dollars, and if you wanted the hardback copy with a tattered jacket you’d have to lay out upwards of three bills. Too steep for me.
I decided to wait until it was reprinted. It would have to be reprinted, right? Why wouldn’t it be? As soon as comments were invented for the Internet (“the Internet!…”), I learned that everyone who ever read the book shared my fondness for it. Everyone asked when it would be published again. People said they had children that were ripe for it and they were desperate to find an affordable copy. By lurking on eBay in the days when I had time to do that, I managed to snag first edition copies of two of the sequel books, The Mystery of the Witch Who Wouldn’t (1969) and The Ghost of Hellsfire Street (1980), but these were not cheap, and still Sinbad eluded me.
Life got busy and I forgot about Sinbad for a while, but by chance a year or two ago I encountered a website run by Christopher Platt, son of the author and the inspiration for Steve Forrester, the dog-owning narrator of the story. His posts chronicled the sad tale of his unsuccessful attempts to get his father’s books reprinted. Apparently he holds the rights to most of them (the author died in 2003), but publisher after publisher has turned him down, saying that the Steve Forrester and Sinbad books wouldn’t be big sellers today, despite the apparent legion of people my age who are looking for them and the fact that Sinbad and Me won the 1967 Edgar Award for best children’s mystery. Some good news came eventually from Christopher that some of Platt’s long-unavailable adult crime fiction was going to be reprinted. But that just made the wait for Sinbad and Me that much more intolerable.
I recently did searches in the Seattle Public Library system, which doesn’t list the book, and in the King County Library system, which supposedly had one copy, but as a Seattle resident I am ineligible to borrow from the King County system, even if the book were sitting on the shelf. Which it’s not. It’s in some warehouse hold bin somewhere — probably an underground vault watched by armed guards and a three-headed dragon. It’s probably perpetually checked out. I imagine that the book is listed as “missing” on a lot of library databases.
I asked a librarian blog-pal for help (tip o’ the hat to Librarian Girl), and she suggested I try an interlibrary loan, in which Seattle Public Library would send a rider on a fast horse out to all the libraries in the land, asking if they had the book and if SPL could borrow it for a teensy bit because they had a patron with a fever. If the quest was successful, I would pay a fin for their efforts, if not, not.
Five bucks for a chance to read Sinbad and Me to Mara seemed like a good deal, so I signed up right online (“the Internet!…”). More than a month and a half went by and I had honestly given up hope, but the book eventually turned up in the Danville Public Library in Illinois.
Danville was willin’, so a few days ago I got word from SPL that my book was waiting for me behind the counter at the Central branch and that I could have it for a month, no renewals.
I’m reading it to Mara and she loves it. She’s a little young for it, but by the time she’s twelve the book may have completely vanished from the earth. The narrator’s best friend is a girl named Minerva who’s smarter than he is and can run faster, so there’s a good female role for her to identify with, but she would do fine even without that. She has an uncanny ability to absorb the meaning and import of things read to her that many kids wouldn’t be able to listen to for five minutes.
The best part? The version they handed me at the library is a first edition and so has the original jacket on it, which means we get the whole, unadulterated experience. It’s a library book, but even so it’s the most valuable book in our house at this moment. But the real thrill for me is simply having access again to the text of a story that I remember so fondly, and being able to share it with Mara.
I wish I had thought to go back to Mrs. Smith, or whatever her name was, years ago and thank her for turning me on to such a brilliant read. I’m still waiting to hear the news that Sinbad and Me is coming back into print. Meanwhile, once we finish Sinbad and Me, it’ll be on to The Mystery of the Witch Who Wouldn’t and The Ghost of Hellsfire Street, neither of which I ever read, even after paying through the nose for them on eBay. Or wait…maybe I won’t say anything about them yet. They’re safe on the shelf, and it might be more fun for the girls to just discover them there on their own.
Update 12/16/2014: I got a bee in my bonnet about this today and asked an old classmate on facebook whether she remembered this teacher, whose name might be Smith. I wanted to find her and thank her for being one of the people in my life who made me into a reader and writer. I thought it was a long shot, but Jennifer C. wrote back this very evening: “Her name was Evelyn Smith, I saw an obituary for her quite a few years ago. She was very kind.”
I went a-googling and found the following obituary from 2004 for Ms. (not Mrs.) Smith, the teacher who knew how to find books for finnicky 11-year-old boys:
GLENDALE, AZ. – Seattle native Evelyn Margaret Smith, of Glendale, AZ, died Monday, Sept. 13, 2004, in Tempe, AZ. She was 93.
Ms. Smith was born on September 25, 1912, to J. Warren and Eva (Taylor) Smith. She graduated from Garfield High School in Seattle, WA and Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA.
Ms. Smith was the granddaughter of William Henry Taylor, formerly of Granton, Pictou County, Nova Scotia, CAN. Her grandfather moved from Nova Scotia to Minnesota, US, where he married Ms. Smith’s grandmother, Katie Gallagher. After Ms. Smith’s mother, Eva Taylor, and uncle, Orton Taylor, were born, the family moved to Seattle, King County, WA, US.
Ms. Smith was an elementary school teacher and taught for many years at Enatai Elementary School in Bellevue, WA. She also taught for the U. S. Army in Japan, Germany and France.
She is survived by two sisters, Catherine Schmid of Woodland, CA, and Mabel Powers of Peoria, AZ; one niece, Linda Kimura of Woodland, CA; one nephew, Marty Schmid of Hermiston, OR; one great nephew, Jeff Smith of Des Moines, WA and one great-niece, Corri Schmid of Hoquiam, WA.
Inurnment will be at Willowbrook Methodist Church with a memorial service to be held at a later date. Arrangements are by Camino del Sol Funeral Center of Sun City West, AZ.