Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"Wild Things:" The Real World of Children's Literature

When I first heard about Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature last spring, I immediately made a note of the publication date. I'm one of those folks who is fascinated by the "behind-the-scenes" stuff, especially if it involves children's literature, and this book by three well-known bloggers looked just spectacular.

 Let me just say right now that I wasn't disappointed. Not even one little bit. And that's certainly not surprising, given the kit lit chops of the three authors: Betsy Bird, who blogs at A Fuse # 8 Production, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blogger Julie Danielson, and the late, great Peter D. Sieruta, whose Collecting Children's Books blog remains a gold standard of the kid lit blogosphere. These three did prodigious research to uncover the secrets behind children's literature classics and their authors and illustrators; in fact, they ended up with so much wonderful information that their editor told them they couldn't put it all in the book.

 Fortunately, Betsy and Julie had the terrific idea of creating a separate Wild Things website, where -- in the weeks before publication -- they shared intriguing snippets of the book that ended up on the cutting room floor. (The site continues as a place where we can catch "Sneaky Peek Videos" of new books as a way of celebrating the publication of Wild Things).

There's so much good stuff in Wild Things that I've read the book twice and still feel that I've only scratched the surface. Some of things they include are well-known, such as how Robert McCloskey brought home ducklings to the Greenwich Village apartment he shared with fellow children's book artist Marc Simont so he could really capture their movements in his drawings. And I knew from Anita Silvey's 100 Best Books for Children that McCloskey had plied the ducklings with wine to slow them down so he could better draw them But what I learned from Wild Things took things further, as you'll learn from the interview below.

Then there's an "interlude" titled "Some Hidden Delights of Children's Literature" in which the Wild Things authors take a peek at things like Caldecott Medalist Trina Schart Hyman's "dirty tricks" in two particular books; read on for the specifics, found in the interview below. Such vivid details are the stuff from which Wild Things is constructed. But there's so much more here, including a well-informed look at the key role that GLBT authors and illustrators have played in children's literature and the provocatively-titled chapter on subversive children's literature, "There Should Not Be Any 'Should' in Art."

WILD THINGS!. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by David Roberts. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Ok, you can tell that I feel you should run out and get your hands on this book ASAP, either at your local bookstore or library. Meanwhile, I was honored to be part of a blog tour with Betsy and Julie, and I'm now going to turn things over to them in the form of an interview that we did by email. Before I do that, however, I extend apologies to Betsy and Julie for taking so long to get my part of the show on the road; sometimes real life presents gets in the way of my best blogging efforts. With that out of the way, here we go!

Betsy Bird
Me: First, let me tell you how much I enjoyed your book! I’ve read it twice already; the first time I raced through it, delighting in
Julie Danielson
the stories that you told. Then I read it again, taking my time to enjoy the engaging writing. Bravo! Now for the questions….

We are so glad you enjoyed it!

  1. Can you talk a bit about how the book came about? Others before you, including Anita Silvey and Leonard Marcus, have told some of the stories behind children’s stories, but you have managed to come up with a book that really takes a fresh look at children’s literature. Was your initial focus on “acts of mischief” or did that focus develop as you began pulling together threads for the book?

Jules: It really all started with a desire to debunk the romanticized view of children’s literature that is so prevalent, as well as the condescension that sometimes occurs. We initially had a different book in mind, honestly – one that was mostly the wilder stories that go to show that authors and illustrators are grown-ups and don’t live sweet and adorable lives. But we quickly came to realize, in large part thanks to our editor, that we needed more context and analysis – and that the book needed more shaping. So then those wilder, more fun stories became the stuff of the “interlude” chapters, and the chapters that tackle some of the weightier issues (censorship, gatekeeping, etc.) became more of the focus.

As for “acts of mischief” (the very phrase itself), I teach a graduate course on picture books, and I ask my students to read Patricia Lee Gauch’s wonderful lecture on picture books as acts of mischief (, and it was then I realized that phrase was a perfect fit for our book. We then secured her permission (and the Eric Carle Museum’s permission) to use that wording.

  1. I know that your editor (Liz Bicknell) required you to cut huge swaths of copy, some of which – thankfully – you’ve still been able to share via the Wild Things website. Can each of you tell me which story or section was the hardest for you to part with? Did you ever put your foot down, a la Maurice Sendak and the word “hot” in Where the Wild Things Are, and have a stare-down with your editor?

Betsy: No, I don’t think we ever really disagreed with our editor in that way.  All she told us was the page count to shoot for.  The decision of what to cut then fell entirely onto our little shoulders which, in a way, was much worse.  We didn’t have an editor to blame when our favorites fell by the wayside now! 

I think the hardest cut for me was the Misty of Chincoteague. We’d used that picture of Misty at an ALA meeting in our initial proposal so it felt wrong to lose her.  But lose her we did.  For the greater good, yes?

Jules: It was hard to say goodbye to the tender James Marshall story about his burial site, but we shared it at our site. I’m a big Marshall fan.

  1. I love the illustrations by David Roberts, and the way that they play on one of your central themes: how so many adults are enamored of “fluffy bunny” stories while kids are looking for subversive reads. It really seems that all too many adults have totally forgotten what it’s like to be a kid, “small, courageous people who deal every day with a multitude of problems,” to quote Maurice Sendak.  What do you make of this dichotomy, and, in particular, the idea that so many adults see children as “blank tablets” and thus feel compelled to oversee their reading choices?

Jules: To me, it all boils down to respect for children. I love to see those authors and illustrators who create stories that acknowledge that children are not only, as Sendak said, courageous, but they are also resilient and capable of handling more than many adults assume. It’s hard, because yes, you want to extend the innocence of children. (I think it was Maya Angelou who once used that phrase – to give credit where credit is due.) But I think they can also handle way more than most grown-ups assume. And it’s good for them to face down ogres in the comfy confines of a story, while sitting on mama’s or papa’s lap, because the world is full of ogres of all stripes. And mama’s or papa’s lap is a really safe place to wander through the dark and scary forest.

I always cringe when I see those adults who talk to children as if they are little morons. (It happens. A lot.) It always seems to be accompanied by a raised voice, too (as if the child can’t hear you?) and rampant use of the word “precious.”

  1. Continuing a bit on that theme, you lay out quite nicely how kids tend to love subversive books. Years ago, it was series books that kids flocked to and thus attracting the ire of adults and librarians like Anne Carroll Moore (and forced me to buy my own Nancy Drew books as a kid, since libraries refused to purchase them). Today, as a librarian, I see the same dynamic in play, only the battle is over kids’ love of comics and hybrid books like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Seems like a case of “the more things change, the more they remain the same”! Are we destined, in your opinion, to forever see a literary gulf between kids and adults?

Jules: That’s a good (and tough) question. We definitely see overlap---those books, that is, that both children and gatekeepers love---but even when we don’t … well, it goes back to what I just said about respect for the child reader. We have to let them read what gets them fired up. Sometimes I hear teachers and librarians dismissing a book that is, say, below the reading level of the child (as usually determined by some random test) or maybe they’re dismissing a graphic novel or book on CD as “not reading.” That’s unfortunate. I read this ( from Jon Scieszka recently, and I wish every teacher and librarian in the country could read it. Let them read what they like!

Now, I’m the mother of a fifth-grader who tends to only read fantasy. But we read aloud together a lot, so what do I do? I make sure I sneak in some realism for her, because sure, I want her to be exposed to different things. But I’d never tell her or her sister that they weren’t allowed to read something they found tremendously fun. As Scieszka always says, we need to relax when it comes to children and reading.

Betsy: And if I might raise a flag in defense of librarians, I’d say that there’s a big difference these days between how gatekeepers view comics and comic hybrids today versus even ten years ago.  We’re beginning to see adults really grasping the myriad of forms out there more than ever before.  It’s not universal, but it’s increasing.

In defense of Anne Carroll Moore (a phrase not heard often enough as she tends to be the bogeyman uptight librarian stand-in these days) series were crap back then.  Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys (and Oz books) were the exception to the rule.  90% of the stuff out there was just awful and there were just SO MANY of them that it was really easy to justify not buying them by saying the libraries didn’t buy series.  It was as much a budget decision as a qualitative one.  Nancy just happened to suffer as a result.  

  1. I’m fascinated by your idea that children’s books may evolve more than any other literary genre, especially the ideas that “rather than accompany social change, children’s books have a way of preceding it.” This is another major theme of your book, and I’d love to have you expand on it a bit.

Betsy:  Well, folks have always used children’s literature as a way of promoting their own agendas.  That’s pretty well known.  But other folks have turned to children’s literature as a place of freedom when denied the right to write elsewhere.  That’s a little less well known.  Take the blacklist era during the Red Scare.  Writers left and right were told they couldn’t write books or screenplays anymore so what did some of them do?  They turned to children’s literature and wrote in that field for a while. 

Yet ironically, just because someone’s a great adult author, that doesn’t mean they’re a great children’s author as well.  So society’s mores get challenged in children’s books because the authors are both great writers and, in a sense, ahead of their time.

  1. Given the importance of children’s books, it’s perturbing that those who create them often get so little respect, a problem that you spotlight in your book. As a children’s librarian and children’s book reviewer, it maddens me when people say that a children’s book would be “fun” and “easy” to write, and that any celebrity thinks he or she can do it. In fact, Lois Lowry once told me that, even after winning two Newbery Medals, some people still ask her when she’s going to write a “real” book, i.e. one for adults. Can you talk a bit more about this lack of respect for children’s book creators?

Jules: Well, it’s something I hear about a lot. I don’t understand why it happens. We write in our book that, for whatever reason, it seems that if people work with children in any way in this country, their profession is often condescended to (daycare teachers, children’s librarians, teachers, authors, illustrators). It’s baffling, and I think an entire book could be written about this phenomenon. In fact, Beverly Lyon Clark explores the marginalization and frequent diminishment of children’s literature in her book, Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America, which was published in 2003, so one thing I can do is recommend people read that.

  1. Who do you see as the audience for your book? And what do you hope readers take away from this book?

Betsy: The audience was always a question right from the start.  As we saw it, the book could have gone one of two ways.  Either we were writing for people already in the know (children’s librarians, booksellers, academics, teachers, and maybe the odd parent) or we were writing for the cultural mainstream.  Eventually we realized that we would shoot for the latter while doing everything in our power to make the former happy. 

As for what we hope readers take away from our book, it’s all about R-E-S-P-E-C-T, baby.  Respect for the people writing these books your kids read.  Respect for the book themselves and what they are capable of doing.  And a healthy understanding that books for kids aren’t written by little angels on fluffy clouds.  These people have adult problems and attitudes.  They just also happen to be geniuses at talking to the young. 

  1. I’m blown away by the amount of research you folks did for this book. For each of you: what was the thing you learned from your research that most surprised you?

Betsy: That would be the fate of the Robert McCloskey ducklings.  There were certain facts about their case that I already knew.  I knew that Mr. McCloskey bought a bunch of ducks and put them in his Greenwich Village apartment so that he could draw them and get them just right for Make Way for Ducklings.  I knew that he gave them red wine to slow them down.  And I may even have known that he had a devil of a time getting rid of those ducks once he was finished capturing their ducky waddles on paper.  But what happened to them after that?  That is where our research got interesting.  And tragic!

Jules: It was fun to stumble upon the story of the witch’s table in King Stork, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. I read about it (a very brief mention) in her 1985 Caldecott acceptance speech for St. George and the Dragon. None of us knew that story, so it was neat to track down. I can’t say it was terribly surprising, though, since she was fearless. 

  1. You have a fascinating discussion in the book about GLBT authors and illustrators, especially your statement that “it should come as no surprise that the greatest stories written for children are those produced by people who have felt outside of the mainstream in some manner.” Can you please talk more about this?

Betsy:  Absolutely. One of the big shocks I discovered while researching for this chapter was that there has never been a book about GLBT children’s authors and illustrators.  None!  Individual biographies, perhaps, but nothing all-encompassing.  So as I culled from the past and looked through the names of great authors, it became crazy clear that when you put them all together they make up the top names in the business.  Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel, Louise Fitzhugh, Margaret Wise Brown (arguably), James Marshall . . . the list goes on and on!  These are people who had private lives at odds with the times in which they lived.  And outsiders, to be perfectly frank, often make the best works for children because kids themselves often feel like outsiders as well.  It’s a match made in heaven.

  1. Finally, you conclude with a look at the future of children’s literature. Can you talk a bit about what you see in your crystal balls?

Jules: I certainly can’t predict the future, but I do hope that we see strides when it comes to tolerance for topics that are now considered taboo, depending on what part of the country you live in. There are still so many people who take issue with characters in children’s lit who fall on the GLBT spectrum. I hope we see less and less of those books challenged. I also hope that diversity in children’s literature becomes commonplace; the stats right now are depressing, as this link makes clear:

I think I can safely say that Betsy would agree with me on those points, too.

Betsy: Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Thanks so much, Betsy and Julie, for taking the time to answer these questions!!

Thank you so much, Karen!

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