25th Anniversary in the Archives: Seeing Things Differently

Today I want to tell you our final story—this story, to be precise.

The Cable Car and the Dragon by Herb Caen is the story of a cable car named Charlie living in San Francisco who is tired of his lot in life and ready for a change. It was originally published over 40 years ago by Doubleday and Co.—only a few years after Chronicle Books was founded, and many years before it had a Children’s list.

When Charlie meets our narrator, he is getting tired of his job, running the same route over and over every day. “‘I’m not having any FUN,’” Charlie says. “‘Shucks, I don’t even know what the rest of San Francisco looks like.’”

As he travels his usual line with the narrator, riding up Powell to Jackson Street, they are able to see down into Chinatown at the crest of a hill, where Chinese New Year celebrations are underway. And when Charlie hears that the New Year’s parade even has a real dragon, he decides to make a change. “‘I’m not turning left tonight,’ he shouted… ‘Tonight, for the first time in my life, I am turning RIGHT!’”

And so he does—Charlie pulls himself off the track that he has travelled for sixty years and rides into the parade through Chinatown, where he meets a real dragon named Chu Chin Chow. Chu, who has likewise never seen a cable car before, decides to ride with Charlie after the parade—a thrilling new adventure for Chu that suddenly turns quite scary when, at the top of Russian Hill, Charlie loses control over the track, and the three of them plummet down the steep slope, straight towards the bay!

Luckily, with some quick thinking, Chu is able to slow the car down enough to stop at the end of the tracks, saving the day. Chu and Charlie thank each other for their new experiences, and Chu disappears into the Bay until the next New Year.

While many things have changed in San Francisco in 40 odd years, it’s nice to see many things that are still the same when looking at Cable Car: the path down Russian hill with Alcatraz in the distance, the park at the end of the cable car line on the pier, and the many people riding up and down on the cars each day. But as Charlie and Chu showed, sometimes change can be a good thing—sometimes it pays to go right instead of left.

Though Chronicle Books did not publish any children’s books in 1986 when the rights to Cable Car and the Dragon reverted from Doubleday, they made a bid to the author, Herb Caen, who was already a prolific journalist with the SF Chronicle newspaper at the time. It was a San Francisco book—who better than a San Francisco publisher? And when Caen saw how well Chronicle Books had done with a collection of his columns not long before, he agreed—Cable Car and the Dragon would be reprinted by Chronicle Books.

This recognition of Chronicle Books’ acumen as a publisher had further reaching effects than the acquisition of one title. Victoria Rock, founding editor of the Children’s department, shared how she discovered Cable Car and Chronicle Books:

“When I was a young editor in New York, I had dreams of taking a short stint in San Francisco. The response to that from my publishing colleagues was, “Well, then, you’ll have to leave children’s books.” Then one day I was browsing a bookstore and came across The Cable Car and the Dragon, published out of San Francisco no less. “Problem solved,” I thought to myself. Little did I know that it was the only children’s book on Chronicle’s list. I had no idea who Herb Caen was. (This was pre-Internet.) And so I naively contacted Chronicle. Everything about this story is a lesson in how not to get a job. But there you have it. And here I am.”

And so, 25 years ago, a Children’s list was formed, and Chronicle Books went down a brand new path in its publishing. As Rock concludes, “All of this reflects what I really love about publishing: serendipity. To think–an out-of-print “regional” book was the catalyst for the creation of a list that was honored this year by the Bologna Book Fair for North American Publisher of the year.”

Chronicle Children’s has come a long way in 25 years, but it has never lost sight of its roots, always doing things a little differently from the rest. Whether it is with distinctive storytelling, playful formats, or unique ventures into visual and aural books, Chronicle has found that a little change can often lead to surprising, thrilling and enjoyable results. All it takes is a willingness to try—to take a right, instead of a left.

Julia Patrick
Sales Materials Coordinator

Julia Patrick

Assistant Editor in the Entertainment department at Chronicle Books. Part-time archivist, full-time hobbyist, real-life best friends with R2-D2.
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