A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Wild About Wild Things!

What -- other than fame and fortune -- do Chelsea Clinton, Jerry Seinfeld, Madonna and Peyton Manning have in common? If you’ve read Wild Things!, my latest favorite book about children’s literature, you know the answer: they are four of the numerous celebrities who have penned children’s books.

The authors of Wild Things!, Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta, devote an entire chapter to “The Celebrity Children’s Book Craze,” a fact which endears them to me even without the other six chapters (more on those later). No longer must I fume alone!

Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature
by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta
Why the fuming? Allow me to digress and count the ways:
  • Non-famous writers for children spend years, decades, lifetimes at their craft with no assurance of publication and, usually, little financial reward. Celebrity authors get to by-pass all the pain and go straight to the gain (big time) in a field they generally know nothing about.
  • This would be tolerable, sort of, if the books were good. To the contrary. Most celebrity books (with a few exceptions) are insipid, poorly written, preachy, and/or of little interest to their supposed audience (children).
  • Children forced to read bad books often come to the logical conclusion that reading is boring. This not only hurts kids, it negates the efforts of writers for children, librarians, and teachers to supply vibrant, engaging books for kids.
  • The phenomenon of celebrity children’s books reinforces the common view that anyone can write a book for kids. They’re short and have pictures so it must be easy, right? This false and patronizing attitude leads to more bad books (see #3 above). It also implies that children don't deserve the best literature we are capable of creating.
  • The trees. Think of all the trees, sacrificed to big print runs on the altars of celebrity ego and profit!
Fortunately for readers, the authors of Wild Things! rise above fuming like mine to treat the celebrity issue (and others) with thoughtfulness, finesse and panache.

The rest of the book is summed up in its subtitle: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. Mischief, you ask? Good grief, yes! Children’s books have been a battleground for adults' attitudes toward children and childhood from the start. Subversive stories for children pop up regularly in response to cultural norms and issues (think The Story of Ferdinand coming out during World War II). The authors give a tidy history of children’s publishing along with their examples, books ranging from Struwwelpeter in 1858 to Charlotte’s Web, The Stinky Cheese Man and, more recently, I Want My Hat Back

Illustration from Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman
Further chapters discuss GLBT concerns in books for youth, censorship (there’s plenty of it), and the publishing industry itself, with a look at books that critics love but kids don’t, and vice versa. The book concludes with an overview of the current “post-Potter,” digitally-infused children’s book scene.

Besides all the above good stuff, Wild Things! is peppered with fascinating and sometimes naughty tidbits about authors, editors, and famous books. Example: go find an old edition of the classic Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. On the back cover flap you’ll see a photo of the illustrator, Clement Hurd, cheerfully smoking a cigarette. This was, after all, 1947, when smoking was glamorous rather than cancerous. Fast forward to the 2005 revised edition. Through digital magic, Hurd’s fingers are oddly empty. Or this one: In 1974, as the Watergate scandal was disgracing the presidency of the United States, Dr. Seuss modified his popular Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now! to read Richard M. Nixon…! Chapter “Interludes” cover subjects like “Sex and Death” with details that will forever alter your images of certain famous authors for children.

The authors are a knowledgable trio of children's book experts. Betsy Bird is a collections specialist for youth materials at the New York Public Library, as well as a writer for children, blogger at A Fuse #8 Production, and contributor to The Horn Book magazine. Julie Danielson critiques books for Kirkus Reviews and blogs at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Peter D. Sieruta, who passed away during the writing of this book, was a reviewer for The Horn Book, author, and creator of the blog, Collecting Children's Books.

If you love children’s books, you’ll love this book. And if you read the chapter on celebrity authors and their books, you’ll even find recommendations for a few good ones.

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