February 8, 2017

"I used to have a patchwork theory about the makers of children’s literature: that they were not so much people who spent a lot of time with kids as people who were still kids themselves."

"Among the evidence was that Beatrix Potter had no children, Maurice Sendak had no children, Margaret Wise Brown had no children, Tove Jansson had no children, and Dr. Seuss had no children. Even Willems began writing for children before he had a child. But what makes these adults so in touch with the distinct color and scale of the emotions of children? I now have a new theory: Tove Jansson began her Moomin series during the Nazi occupation of Finland; Paddington Bear was modelled on the Jewish refugee children turning up alone in London train stations. Arnold Lobel, the creator of the Frog and Toad books, came out to his children as gay and died relatively young, from AIDS. I wonder if the truer unity among children’s-book authors is sublimated outrage at the adult world. If they’re going to serve someone, it’s going to be children."

From "Mo Willems's Funny Failures/How the author teaches young readers to confront problems and be resilient" by Rivka Galchen (in The New Yorker).

I haven't read children's books in a long time, so I'd never heard of Mo Willems. I greatly enjoyed reading about him, especially: "Many parents have told me that they find Pigeon too angry or too snarky or too adult. And Pigeon is angry and snarky.* Years ago, many grownups were similarly skeptical of the tantrums of Max, in Maurice Sendak’s 'Where the Wild Things Are.' The children of those grownups are now grownups who name their children Max."

And that line "If they’re going to serve someone, it’s going to be children" reminded me of 2 things: One that I blogged recently:
"The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is worth any number of old ladies." — William Faulkner
And the other something that long ago got wedged into my consciousness: David Foster Wallace (in "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart") wrote:
Obviously, a good commercial memoir's first loyalty has got to be to the reader, the person who's spending money and time to access the consciousness of someone he wishes to know and will never meet. But none of [Austin's memoir's] loyalties are to the reader. The author's primary allegiance seems to be to her family and friends....
_______________________________

* Here's the book "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!"

37 comments:

Gojuplye said...

Calvin and Hobbes. How kids really think

Meade said...

Shel Silverstein (The Giving Tree) had 2 kids. But it seems he didn't spend much time with them.

Jay Elink said...

Gojuplye said...
Calvin and Hobbes. How kids really think

*******************

Dang! First thing I thought of!

Henry said...

Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggie books are really good. "We are in a Book" is a piece of metafiction brilliance.

D.D. Driver said...

My kids are now just a couple years too old for Mo Willems but we used to have all of the pigeon books, knuffle bunny, Edwina the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct, etc. etc.

Wonderful books. With kids, you end up reading the same crappy books over and over again. It's great to have a few that you don't mind reading again and again. Mo Willems was the children's author that I did not hate. The books were fun and funny.

Aussie Pundit said...

"I wonder if the truer unity among children’s-book authors is sublimated outrage at the adult world. ",

Outrage is a very adult emotion, so the writer doesn't quite nail it.

These authors are escapists pure and simple, fleeing the harshness of the real world through childhood whimsy and fantasy.


Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody

Angel-Dyne said...

The most magical of children's books, by my lights, is D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Mythology.

I don't know if the magic of the illustrations is accessible to an adult who had not experienced them as a child, but they had the same mesmerizing effect on my children that they had on me. Highly recommended to anyone with young children.

I do not know if the d'Aulaires were childless.

Paul Snively said...

The brothers Grimm had a pretty good handle on children's understanding/appreciation of a dangerous world. I think Maurice Sendak did, too. And of course, famously, Roal Dahl, who wrote some of the most explicitly "morality play" children's literature in modern times.

As children, we know we're fragile; made up of icky, gunky stuff; and that fascinates us until we grow up and adopt the comfortable illusion that we're solid, and solidly in control. Children's writers retain, or recover, contact with the icky, the gunky, the lack of control.

Joe said...

Hurray for cherry picking evidence and confirmation bias.

CStanley said...

Willems' books are terrific. Still love reading them aloud even though my little ones reading level is now much higher. Too fun... if any parents or grandparents out there haven't discovered the series yet, go ahead and order some now.

TerriW said...

Angeldyne:

My kids liked D'Aulaires Greek myths book, but they could NOT get enough of the Norse one. The blustering oafish-ness of Thor and the impish-ness of Loki was irresistible. (My son even decided that he just had to try bone marrow after hearing the one about the boy who sucked the marrow from Thor's goat's leg.)

Allison said...

Pigeon is the most real character. Utterly selfish yet without guile or any hint of nastiness, just like a child.

Willems is a lefty's lefty, but Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is one of the most conservative books you can read your child. The point of the book is feelings, pleas, and children's whinings should always be opposed. Because wanting something does not make it good for you or others. And it is most satisfying when reading it aloud as your child opposes Pigeon.

Other recent wonderful picture books these days that capture childhood are the Stella and Sam series by Louise Marie Gay, the beautiful picture books by komako Sakai, and the beautiful picture books by Kate Banks (especially with Halensleben as illustrator),

But the best children's books are Winnie the Pooh and House at Pooh Corner, which were written for Milne's son Christopher Robin Milne, though dedicated to his wife.

PoNyman said...

I just read a Mo Willem's book to my kids last night. In this particular case, "There Is a Bird on Your Head." Hilarious. I'm usually the one prompting for second and third reads on his books. He makes it easy to do voices.

Paul Ciotti said...

Maurice Sendak, who was gay, once told me he didn't particularly like kids (as far as I could tell he didn't much like adults either).

Birches said...

We love No Willems at our house. I didn't know any parents objected to the pigeon. I think he's perfect for many of the reasons listed by others above.

Mac Barnett is also another favorite of ours. He does chapter books too, which is nice now that some of my kids are older.

Birches said...

Also Allan Ahlsberg. The Pencil is one of the finest picture books ever made.

St. George said...

The very grown up E.B. White on the writer's life:" I can't claim to be a real farmer but we do farm and I like to work outside. When I come in after working all day I want a drink or to go to sleep. A drink and a drink and sleep."

http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/08/03/lifetimes/white-interview.html

No child he.

Birches said...

My fifth grader loves that book Angeldyne.

I'll have to get her the Norse one next.

Known Unknown said...

Mr. Pants had no kids, either.

Not that any he knows of at least.


The Cracker Emcee said...

The Nazi occupation of Finland? Another theory shot to hell...

chickelit said...

If they’re going to serve someone, it’s going to be children

"Serving someone" reminded me of a Bob Dylan song -- the one that John Lennon hated.

Known Unknown said...

Many parents have told me that they find Pigeon too angry or too snarky or too adult.

Have these parents never done a thorough reading of Peanuts? That strip was snarky as hell.

Known Unknown said...

Mr. Pants was a reaction to the fact that when every children's author passes, they are most often described as "beloved." I thought to myself, what if there was a despised children's author? What would that be like?

Richard Dillman said...

See Bruno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment" for an interesting discussion of "children's literature."

Barry Dauphin said...

I have liked a number of David Foster Wallace's writings despite the fact he can be quite pretentious. But I think he's wrong about Tracy Austin. He learned that she's loyal to her family and friends, and apparently he didn't know that before he read the book. He learned more than he bargained for, and he simply didn't like it. That's too goddamned bad.

n.n said...

Mother Goose opened her Shoe to survivors of Planned Parenthood.

The social justice adventurists huffed and puffed and blew down nations from Libya to Syria to Ukraine.

Judge be sly, Judge be devious, Judge overruled the People's will.

Then there was Scrooge and single-payer.

The Grinch who urinated on Christ-mas.

Fond memories of childhood tales.

Michael McClain said...

There was no Nazi/German occupation of Finland. The Finns were allies of Germany after the German invasion of Russia in June of 1941. They wanted to recover territory they had lost to the Soviets during the Winter War of 1939-40.

As the Red Army recovered and went on the final offensive in early 1945, the Finns made a separate peace with the Soviets, giving up additional territory and forcing an evacuation of all German troops fighting in the far North and around Leningrad/St. Petersburg.

Allison said...

I was recently at a book event with my kids (8 and 10) for Trenton Lee Stewart's new kid's novel. He had previously written a wonderful series, the Mysterious Benedict Society. When the kids had finished their questions of him, I asked something that always troubled me about kids' lit. I mentioned how in his books, like most kid lit, in order for the children to save the day, the adults have to be incapable of doing so (the clearest example of this is Rowling's Harry Potter.) I asked what responsibility did he have as an author to kids to suggest such a thing to them, that adults are helpless.

His first immediate response (I'm paraphrasing slightly) "well, they are (helpless), aren't they?"

I was immediately turned off. No, adults aren't helpless. Every day, adults do real things, big and small, where they take on problems and solve them. And sending kids the message that adulthood is impotence is about the most destructive message you can send.

But there's your answer: this adult writes books for children so he can ignore that he views himself as helpless, and sees living as too much for him. Oikophobia in a sense.

Chas Clifton said...

Finland and Nazi Germany were "co-belligerants" but not "allies" against the Soviet Unions. The difference was important to the Finns. While Germany sent aid and German troops crossed Finland into northern Norway (and did operate some in Northern Finland), you can't say that Finland was "occupied" in the same sense as say France or Denmark.

Just a little detail that the reporter got wrong.

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

Laurie Berkner makes delightful children's music and is also childless.

Michael Fitzgerald said...

Hans Christian Andersen is the greatest of them all. He had no children.

Michael Fitzgerald said...

Here's a link to some of Andersen's stories.

http://hca.gilead.org.il/#dedication

damikesc said...

Mo is terrific and I used to read Elephant and Piggy booKS to my youngest's second grade class. They cried when I read their last book.

Birches said...

what if there was a despised children's author? What would that be like?

P.L. Travers comes to mind. I don't think anyone who knew her liked her. Oh, and I think she had kids...

Emmster said...

Mo Willems' books are really great, not just for kids, but adults too, who may have to read them over and over and over again! The drawings are very expressive and the messages in his books are excellent.

The Sage of Altadena said...

Actually Laurie Berkner has a daughter. And, even tho' our kids have outgrown her, her music is delightful -- kids can enjoy it and adults don't mind.

The creepiest children's book is Love You Forever by Robert Munsch, altho his others are good. But that one -- just plain bizarre. Altho' I think the worst children's book I ever read was a "Word Jazz" alphabet by Ken Nordine. It's arch and hip in a 50's jazzbo way, and is apparently aimed at adults who have no children to buy for their nieces and nephews, because they think children respond to arch, hip, jazzbo stuff.

I also have to raise my hand for the d'Aulaires. Everything I know about Greek mythology came from reading that book and enjoying the pictures over and over when I was a kid. I bought a copy a few years ago, allegedly for my children, but really for me.