Two of my favorite librarians have teamed up to create what is sure to be the new must read in children's lit scholarly circles and I couldn't be happier for them. Julie (Jules) Danielson and Betsy Bird have combined their considerable talents with the new blog WILD THINGS and the new book, WILD THINGS: ACTS OF MISCHIEF IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE. The journey has been bittersweet since co-author Peter Sieruta passed away before the book went to publications - but oh, what a tribute the book is! I'm thrilled that Jules and Betsy were able to stop by to talk about their collaboration...
Jules and I are very lucky. In promoting our new book Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (co-written with the late Peter Sieruta) we’ve gotten to field all sorts of interesting questions. One that we were handed recently concentrated on the subversive nature of our book. You see, in Wild Things we authors attempt to debunk the very notion that all things associated with children’s literature are fluffy bunnies and sparkly rainbows. I think Maurice Sendak said it best when he said “I think it is unnatural to think that there is such a thing as a blue-sky, white-clouded happy childhood for anybody. Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it. Because if one thing goes wrong or anything goes wrong, and usually something goes wrong, then you are compromised as a human being. You're going to trip over that for a good part of your life.” With that in mind we set out to write a book that talks about the true stories behind children’s books and what they set out to do. It’s been arduous but fun and we’ve really enjoyed it.
The question that I was recently asked that really caught my eye, however, regarded our favorite example of subversive writing in children’s books. And let me tell you, that is a hard thing to choose. Just one? Would you go with The Paper Bag Princess, written by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko which turns princess-based tales turned on their heads (a perfect gift for baby showers, yes?). Or should it be the great Stinky Cheese Man himself, bacon smile and all? Should it be Uncle Shelby’s ABZs by Shel Silverstein (which wasn’t really for children anyway) or a more recent title like A Rule Is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy by John Seven and Jana Christy (a book that made the Tea Party go crazy not too long ago) or the upcoming Me & Dog by Gene Weingarten (which may be the first atheist picture book I’ve ever seen)?
No. In the end my heart belongs to a boy with wild tangled hair and fingernails who has never seen a bath a day of his short life. Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman was subversive before there was subversion, and its lessons have fed the nightmares of parents world round for years (kids apparently take the “lessons” with a grain of salt and aren’t as affected). Hoffman wrote the tales as a reaction against the namby pamby didactic lesson books for kids that were coming out at the time. Read the right way, there’s a morbid humor to his style. Whether it’s a story about a rabbit taking revenge on a hunter or why you shouldn’t suck your thumbs (Scissor Man, anyone?) once you’ve read these stories you will NEVER forget them.
The kicker is that the book wasn’t published in the last five years. It wasn’t published in the last ten years. It wasn’t published in the last ONE HUNDRED years even!
Oh. And Mark Twain was a big fan. Even brought them to America from Germany where he’d found them.
Basically if you’re looking for a book that gives you some insights behind-the-scenes to stories like this one and lets you know the true dirt behind books for the young, ours is the one for you. As Walter de la Mare is often quoted as saying, “I know well that only the rarest kind of best in anything can be good enough for the young.” Or, put another way by Maurice Sendak, “. . .from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.” Consider our Wild Things untamed.
Betsy Bird is the youth materials collections specialist for the New York Public Library and is the author of Giant Dance Party, illustrated by Brandon Dorman. In addition to writing for The Horn Book magazine, she is the creator of the blog A Fuse #8 Production.
Julie Danielson is a regular contributor to Kirkus Reviews, and in her blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, she has featured and / or interviewed hundreds of top names in picture books. Julie Danielson lives in Tennessee.
Peter D. Sieruta (1958–2012) was an author, book critic, and frequent reviewer for The Horn Book magazine. His blog, Collecting Children’s Books, served as inspiration for his contributions to Wild Things!
Candlewick has generously agreed to send a free galley to one of my lucky followers. Must live in the US to win - enter below.