Oh, We'll Show YOU Sweet

Dames Nation, Do We Have a Treat For You!

Guest Editors Betsy Bird & Jules Danielson
are here ​to pinch-hit for us,
and what they've put together is an absolute HUMDINGER of an issue.

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Betsy writes the children's literature blog A Fuse #8 Production.
Jules writes the children's literature blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

With their late friend and colleague Peter Sieruta, they wrote
Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature

which we think you'll want to read in its entirety after enjoying these anecdotal aperitifs.  

You can follow Betsy on Twitter, where she's @fuseeight
Find Jules on Twitter at @sevenimp.

We hear it every day. “Oh! You blog about children’s books? I just love children’s books! They’re … so … so … sweet!”

As children’s book professionals, we have long wondered what causes so many adults---sophisticated, worldly, and even downright jaded adults---to get sentimental at the mere mention of children’s books. It seems that, for many, the topic conjures up a world of gumdrops, rainbows, and fluffy little bunnies that love you forever and like you for always. We like to call it the “fluffy bunny” mentality.


Do not step to this adorable & very tough lapin, ok? Just don't.

But having studied and worked in the field for many years, we are aware that children’s literature has a rich, complex, and sometimes dark history not explored in most texts, histories, and trade books. Children’s literature even has its own fair share of spies and sneaky behavior.

Now, we’re children’s literature experts, better suited to explaining to you the precise reason why picture books are always 32, 40, or 48 pages long. But when it comes to the secret operatives of children’s lit, that doesn’t mean we don’t have some serious intel to impart. That’s right: Pick up your shoe phone and lower the cone of silence, because this is about to get real. We’ll kick it all off with:The Nefarious Double Agent Past of Your Beloved Children’s Books and Their Authors.

A World of Pure Imagination (That Is, Wild Historical Facts) Awaits!

First up: The man who brought us the world’s most memorable chocolate factory, a magical peach, and a young girl with pretty kick-ass telekinetic gifts. When we think of Roald Dahl, we sometimes imagine a bald gangly Englishman with a penchant for the absurd. Go back a little in time, however, and Roald Dahl wasn’t just attractive. The man was smokin’.


Our Highly Problematic, Antisemitic & Misogynistic Daguerreotype Boyfriend
Who Also Helped Save Democracy in His Own Sexual Way
(People Contain Multitudes)

The year was 1942. Roald Dahl was a wounded RAF pilot and diplomat serving with the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. Bored out of his skull and prone to getting in trouble, he expressed interest in doing something a little more covert. Somewhat surprisingly, he got his wish, though as one agent warned him, “… if you join us, you mustn’t be afraid of forgery, and you mustn’t be afraid of murder.” Working for the British Security Coordination (BSC), Dahl’s job was simple. He was to help mount a secret propaganda program to convince America to go to war. Britain desperately needed America’s help to defeat Hitler, but isolationist viewpoints in the U.S. stood in the way. So, alongside compatriots like Noel Coward, Dahl helped as the BSC influenced journalists, plotted against companies that did business with Nazi Germany, and planted propaganda in newspapers and radio programs.

Then there were the women. Yes, Dahl definitely had to sleep with women. A lot of them, apparently. And “had” isn’t too strong a word. He enjoyed the interest of a fair amount of ladies, spy or no spy. A good-lookin’ fella, he was of Norwegian and Scottish ancestry, claiming that his mother was descended from Sir William Wallace’s illegitimate son. Antoinette Marsh Haskell, daughter of Dahl’s friend the Texas oil tycoon Charles Edward Marsh, commented, “I think he slept with everybody on the East and West Coasts that had more than fifty thousand dollars a year.” Amongst his conquests was the Standard Oil heiress Millicent Rogers, who gave him a Tiffany gold key to her front door.

Once the BSC got word of his special “abilities” (shall we say), he was instructed to romance an American congresswoman. Clare Booth Luce had raised a red flag overseas, criticizing British colonialism, particularly in India. She sat on the House of Military Affairs Committee and spoke out vociferously for American “air sovereignty,” which also didn’t sit well across the pond. If only she could be convinced to see the British position. The solution? Dahl was tapped to tap Ms. Luce. He was not entirely thrilled with the proposition, later telling Texan lawyer Creekmore Fath, “I am all fucked out. That goddam woman has absolutely screwed me from one end of the room to another for three goddam nights.” When he complained to the Ambassador the response was, “Roald, did you see the Charles Laughton movie of Henry VIII? . . . Well, do you remember the scene with Henry going into the bedroom with Anne of Cleves, and he turns and says, ‘the things I’ve done for England’? Well that’s what you’ve got to do.”

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Another children’s author, of a fashion, who was embroiled in working for Britain in America was none other than the creator of James Bond himself, Ian Fleming. Years later, Dahl would not only write the script forYou Only Live Twice(a.k.a. the one with a ninja army/hollowed-out volcano), but also adapt Fleming’s children’s bookChitty Chitty Bang Bangto the screen. It’s clear that while British spies certainly engaged in all the grown-up activities one would expect of a James Bond, the unexpected offshoot turned out to be a desire to write great books for small kids. Who knew?

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Fire in the Hole!


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Bang Bang, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, We Love You!
(If you know what we mean, and we think you do!)

Dahl was one kind of British spy, working in America for what he saw as the good of his country. Over in England, there was Arthur Ransome, a very different kind of spy and a very different kind of man.

Now, if you were British, you would know the name Arthur Ransome. Today, people remember him for his series of twelve children’s books set during the time between the two world wars in the heart of England’s Lake District. His best known title today is probably Swallows and Amazons (1930), though there is a great deal of affection left for his entire oeuvre.

He had his enemies -- enemies that would cause him to flee England just on the cusp of WWI. In 1913, Lord Alfred Douglas, former Oscar Wilde boy toy and best known to the world as simply “Bosie,” accused Arthur Ransome of libeling him in his book, Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study -- all this in spite of the fact that Ransome never even mentioned Douglas by name. Bosie lost this suit, but Ransome still left for Russia afterwards to escape the controversy. This meant that when WWI kicked off a year later, he was in a good position to report from Russia and interview folks like Leon Trotsky, Russian Marxist revolutionary and founder of the Red Army.

While there, Ransome met Trotsky’s secretary Evgenia Shelepina outside of his office. He wanted a censor to stamp an article of his. She found him a censor and then fed him potatoes. It was love. And once his divorce from his first wife was finalized, the two got hitched and later she moved with him back to merry old England.

Ransome would go on to befriend Radek, the Bolsheviks’ chief of propaganda. In spite of this, in the summer of 1918, MI6 recruited him. The result was that Ransome became a kind of double agent. Mind you, years later Ransome would rail at anyone who suggested that he had socialist or Bolshevik tendencies. Like Roald Dahl, his was a life split between politics in the first half of his life and children’s literature in the second. And never the twain shall meet.

We're always amazed by how many people visualize children's authors writing their stories with a quill pen in hand and two or three cute fluffy bunnies curled up at their feet. We're not even sure Beatrix Potter lived like that. Something tells us that, after a hard day of writing, Trixie herself probably kicked-back with a mug of beer and a big bowl of ... rabbit stew. Yet the stereotype lives on.

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But let’s be honest. International espionage is the exception, not the rule, for children’s book creators. Which is not to say they aren’t prone to their own particular brand of misbehavior. Example A: There’s that time Caldecott Honor author-illustrator James Marshall (known for a sense of humor mischievous, sharp, and sweet all at once), annoyed by a woman who rudely took his parallel parking spot, stole her shoes from underneath her table after spotting her in a restaurant and then dropped both shoes down a storm drain. Example B: There’s Stan and Jan Berenstain’s What Dr. Freud Didn’t Tell You, published in 1963 and now out of print, a bawdy, suggestive, often sexist, and broad-humored series of cartoons all about the psychology of sex and lust. That from the ambassadors of uplifting, wholesome messages about life, Little League, Easter surprises, bullies, and the dangers of too much junk food? Like you, we can bear-ly believe it. [*dies giggling, the only way to go* -- Ed.]


But our favorite story of sneaky, misbehaving authors is Example C: Caldecott Medalist Trina Schart’s Hyman’s blank tombstone. While the acclaimed illustrator was creating the illustrations for Jean Fritz’s Revolutionary War biography Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (published by Coward-McCann in 1976), a particularly vitriolic Kirkus review was published, scoffing at the illustrations she had created for Snow White, adapted by Paul Heins and published two years previously. Questioning why Hyman was even chosen to illustrate the title, the review refers to the elements of Hyman’s signature style as “gratuitous” and describes her Snow White as a “Disney paper doll.” Subsequently, Ms. Hyman decided to make a statement of her own.  

In John Hancock, the author recounts how Hancock had no children to survive him, that his daughter had lived only a short while and that his nine-year-old son had died during a spill while ice skating. Here we see the elderly John at his children’s gravesites, mourning their loss. To vent her frustration, Hyman provided an epitaph for Virginia Kirkus, then-editor of Kirkus, on one of the tombstones in that illustration:




John Hancock -- tombstone without writing.jpg


As it turns out, none of the book’s reviewers at the time caught the snub -- nor did the publisher. The vice-president and editorial director of Coward-McCann was quoted afterwards: “My astigmatism prevented my seeing this. I don’t think it’s very nice.” Many reviewers later lamented the diss they had missed: Said the Publishers Weekly reviewer, “That’s dirty pool. I think it’s unworthy of so gifted an illustrator as Trina Schart Hyman.” Kirkus’ response was gracious, theirs even having been the first review of the book in print. Claiming that they had actually noticed the epitaph pre-review, the juvenile editor for Kirkus stated, “{I}n view of the fact that we do dish it out, then we’ve got to be able to take it----even in this form.” The then-editor of The Horn Book, Ethel Heins, who had just announced it as a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor title, also admitted to not seeing the jeer. “It certainly escaped the notice of our three percipient judges for the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award. It is a totally unnecessary detail and I wonder at its snideness. It’s the sort of thing I would never condone.”

Eventually, Coward-McCann removed the offending text from the gravestone, and all printings since then (and there have been many) feature a blank slate in the lower right corner, ready and waiting for the reader to scrawl in an epitaph for his or her own favorite enemy! Find a copy of the book in the dusty corner of a used bookstore with “Virginia Kirkus” on the tombstone, and you’ve got yourself a collector’s edition. Or pen in your own zinger and voila.  You’re a misbehaving children’s book artist yourself.

Just like the best of them.