Friday, August 8, 2014

WILD THINGS! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature

Wild Things! “You make my heart sing. You make everything groovy.”

And why not? This is a book full of quirky stories, little-known information, and heaps of authorial personality. What else would you expect from Betsy Bird, Jules Danielson, & Peter D. Sieruta? It covers topics such as art in books, and includes a sketch from The Paper Bag Princess in which the princess has obviously clocked the odious Ronald). It discusses LGBT authors (including Louise Fitzhugh, who wrote Harriet the Spy), characters, and issues in books and how far that topic has come over the years (or hasn’t, as some authors find themselves disinvited or marginalized, regardless of whether they themselves are gay or straight). It covers censorship and book banning (which ones and why – some of which is hilarious for how off-base it seems), along with some issues of censorship based on racism that actually sound a bit right (think of the horrifying descriptions of Native Americans in some of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books or some of the words used to describe people of color over the years).

And then there’s the chapter on celebrity books, which gets things just right in the epigraph, a quote by Jane Yolen: “I’m getting out my pointy bra and brushing up on my singing and dancing, because there’s no good pop music out there.” As the chapter points out, what “celebrity book” often means is something with almost no content, or something with a preachy message, which would have been shot down if it had been submitted by an author who was not a celebrity. Thank you, Betsy, Jules, and Peter, for articulating the exact issue.

There are more chapters, too. Such as the books that kids love but critics hate, and books as big business, and more. And all of it is well-researched and delivers the sort of story and content that will delight and surprise, as well as entertain and motivate.

The book is interspersed with “behind the scenes” stories that talk about different books or authors. One of the chapter titles that naturally caught my eye was “Sex and Death” (because DUH!). Who knew there was murder and mayhem on the Prairie, or quite possibly in Robert McCloskey’s own back yard?

Well, Betsy Bird did, for one. Here’s a special article written just for this post on those topics:

What Mass Murderers and Cute Fuzzy Ducklings Have in Common
by Betsy Bird

It’s not like Jules, Peter, and I set out to shock anyone, let alone ourselves. When we originally came up with the idea behind our book Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature we figured we’d just cobble together some cool behind-the-scenes stories, wrap ‘em up in a pretty bow, and batta bing! Instant book! Fortunately we had editor Liz Bicknell at Candlewick to tell us that there was more to writing than just stringing together cool stories. That said, there were a LOT of stories out there, some of which we’d never heard satisfactory conclusions to.

When we divvied up the different chapters I had one in particular in my sights: Sex & Death. Who wouldn’t want to read a book with a chapter like that? Trouble was, death’s a downer. I had to reject some tales (like a very sad murder-suicide) because they were just too darn sad. So where the heck do you go when you want some cheery death? To Laura Ingalls Wilder, of course.

Let it be said that I am not the one who discovered this story. Indeed, it was Peter Sieruta who somehow found out about it and brought it to our attention. You see, in 1937, Laura was invited to a Book Week celebration in Detroit, Michigan. There, in the J.L. Hudson department store, she talked about topics that are inappropriate in children’s books. Then she proceeded to drop a bombshell. Seems Laura’s beloved Pa had a run in with the Bloody Benders. Ever heard of them? They were a crew of honest-to-goodness frontier mass murderers residing in Kansas. In 1873 it came to light that they’d been inviting in travelers, killing them, and burying their bodies in their backyard.

In her speech Laura made it sound as if Pa had joined a vigilante party that had set out to take care of the Bender problem once and for all. But was it true? Peter set out to find out the truth and what he discovered was honestly unexpected.

So how did we follow up that story in our book? With ducklings. Now you may be wondering why the heckedy heck the story behind Make Way for Ducklings ended up in the Sex & Death chapter. Couldn’t be for the sex. Mommy ducks and daddy ducks make baby ducks. No surprises there. So it had to be for the death. Were the real ducklings behind the story mass canard murderers? Nope. But still they belong.

You see, a lot of folks know this but just in case you don’t author/illustrator Robert McCloskey purchased actual ducks for the purposes of illustrating them for his book. Ever a stickler for accuracy, he wanted to draw how they moved. But how do you slow down ducks enough to get ‘em to the right speed? Hello, cabernet! Finally he was done with the art, but then there was a new problem. What do you do with an apartment full of ducks? Don’t worry, he didn’t kill them or anything. But their eventual fate . . . well, that’s the whole reason they’re in this chapter. In fact, we had to consult with McCloskey’s biographer Gary Schmidt to get the skinny on the ducklings’ endings.

Original research informed a lot of the stories in our book. Fortunately, doing research on children’s books has got to be one of the most enjoyable activities out there. We loved getting the scoop behind the rumors and the tales that felt unfinished. There were a lot we couldn’t publish in the end, but the ones that did make the final cut were the best of the best. Fuzzy ducklings and all.
Oh, Betsy, I see what you did there, coyly leaving off the end of both stories so that readers will have to run and get this book for themselves. Ordinarily I might hint what those actual endings are, but since I agree that folks ought to run right out and grab this book, I won’t. Except to say that I’m not all that surprised to hear about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s remarks, and I doubt that Jeannine Atkins is, either. (Jeannine did a lot of research on Laura and her daughter Rose for her book, Borrowed Names.)

This is the sort of book that you can easily fall into and read continuously, or you could just as easily set it down somewhere (say, your nightstand or bathroom) and dip into it a bit now and a bit later. Really, you'll thank me for the recommendation.

1 comment :

Little Willow said...

I cannot wait to read Wild Things!