Last spring, a children’s librarian that I regard very highly recommended a book, whose author happened to be giving a talk at a local bookstore that week. I went to the talk and read the book, and it is hands down my favorite book I’ve ever read about children’s literature. The book is Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.
The book defies “fluffy bunnies,” or the misconception that all books for young readers are simple and sugary-sweet. It is packed with examples, anecdotes, and author interviews that show instead the subversive side of kidlit.
The illustration, later published with a blank tombstone.
For example, illustrator Trina Schart Hyman, who had recently been knocked in a Kirkus review, painted a graveyard scene for the picture book Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? that snuck in a headstone with an epitaph for Virginia Kirk.
Or how about when librarians, teachers, and parents objected to Charlotte’s Web including death, and the author, E.B. White, responded by telling his editor, “I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a littler of hyenas. The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing.”
The book delves into many other controversial topics addressed in children’s books as well as some behind the scenes mischief in the lives of the writers themselves, and even a media uproar fondly referred to as “Scrotumgate.” Needless to say, I recommend the book wholeheartedly.
The best thing about the book is that, while many of the stories are shocking, it’s not a book advocating for shock value. Julie Danielson, one of the book’s three authors, said that when she gives talks on the book, audience members will sometimes remark that they should write more subversively. “Don’t be subversive just to be subversive,” she said. After all, there is a time and a place for fluffy bunnies, too.
“Don’t be subversive just to be subversive.”
Instead, the book advocates for children’s writers to be genuine. It shows that children’s literature must adapt to the times, and that often it is even at the forefront of helping the times to adapt. It shows that the most successful writers were not condescending, that they were good writers who wrote from the heart whose audience just happened to be children.
That takeaway was a good reminder for me when I received feedback from an editor on a picture book that I entered into a contest this summer. It was a story based on an experience that was important to me, and he gave me high marks on my writing style and even compared me to *blush* a young Oliver Jeffers! Yet he told me that the story was essentially unmarketable.
Should I scrap the story and write to the market? I wondered. But with Wild Things! in mind, I determined to persevere writing from the heart and then trying to find my market, or tweaking my stories to make them marketable, but making sure never to lose the heart in them.