September 16, 2011
The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules
By PAMELA PAUL
The stylistic eccentricities of Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein and Theodor Geisel, a k a Dr. Seuss, are so much a part of the childhood vernacular today that it’s hard to imagine their books were once considered by some to be wholly inappropriate for children.
Yet these three authors — who each have a new book coming out this month in what can only be described as a Seussian coincidence (“But, see! We are as good as you. Look! Now we have new books, too!”) — challenged the conception of what a children’s book should be. And children’s literature, happily, has never been the same.
Once upon a more staid time, the purpose of children’s books was to model good behavior. They were meant to edify and to encourage young readers to be what parents wanted them to be, and the children in their pages were well behaved, properly attired and devoid of tears. Children’s literature was not supposed to shine a light on the way children actually were, or delight in the slovenly, self-interested and disobedient side of their natures.
Seuss, Sendak and Silverstein ignored these rules. They brought a shock of subversion to the genre — defying the notion that children’s books shouldn’t be scary, silly or sophisticated. Rather than reprimand the wayward listener, their books encouraged bad (or perhaps just human) behavior. Not surprisingly, Silverstein and Sendak shared the same longtime editor, Ursula Nordstrom of Harper & Row, a woman who once declared it her mission to publish “good books for bad children.”
Theirs were books that taught the wrong lessons and encouraged narcissistic misbehavior. In “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963), Sendak’s masterpiece, a child chases his dog with a fork and yells at his mother — only to be crowned king and served a hot dinner. “I developed characters who were like me as a child, like the children I knew growing up in Brooklyn — we were wild creatures,” Sendak said recently in a phone interview. “So to me, Max is a normal child, a little beast, just as we are all little beasts. But he upset a lot of people at the time.”
These were books that glorified absurdity and made children laugh at the wrong things. “There’s too many kids in this tub,” begins one Silverstein rhyme, “I just washed a behind / That I’m sure wasn’t mine / There’s too many kids in this tub.” Even the grammar is wrong.
Nor were these books especially childish. The Little Nemo-esque dream world Sendak concocted in “In the Night Kitchen” (1970) was inspired by the Holocaust of all ghoulish things. Its cheery bakers wear Hitler-esque mustaches and try to stuff a young boy named Mickey into an oven. Mickey, moreover, is brazenly naked, his genitalia accurately depicted alongside what some deemed “phallic” milk bottles and creamy baking ingredients. Was it a masturbatory fantasy sequence or an innocent dream about baked goods? The book predictably landed on the American Library Association’s list of the “most challenged books” of the 1990s.
But in 1970, Sendak became the first American to win the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award for excellence in children’s book illustration. Still, his books didn’t sit easily in everyone’s idea of the nursery. His next big book, “Outside Over There” (1981), a not-so-cloaked parable of sibling rivalry, tells the story of a gang of goblins kidnapping a baby girl from under her sister’s watch. The book contains mysterious sexual overtones, with the older sister made rapturous by the proceedings.
“Can ‘Outside Over There’ really be a children’s book?” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt asked in The New York Times. “Is it appropriate for a children’s book to be raising such questions?” The book, he wrote in a largely laudatory review, had the “quality of nightmare,” and intimidated his “somewhat withered” inner child.
Shel Silverstein was similarly suspected of being child-unfriendly. In 1964, Silverstein had trouble finding someone to publish “The Giving Tree.” He had already sold one children’s book, “Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back,” but editors thought “The Giving Tree” fell into a nebulous and unpromising noncategory between children’s book and adult literature. “Look, Shel,” William Cole, an editor at Simon & Schuster, later recalled telling Silverstein, “the trouble with this ‘Giving Tree’ of yours is that . . . it’s not a kid’s book — too sad, and it isn’t for adults — too simple.” Another editor was even more dismissive: “That tree is sick! Neurotic!”
“Whimsical” was one word used to describe Silverstein. But it came with a B-side adjective: “weird.” This was a man who had drawn cartoons for Playboy, and who wrote the lyrics to Johnny Cash’s “Boy Named Sue.”
Yet “The Giving Tree” went on to sell 8.5 million copies. It was embraced by Christians as a parable of selflessness and has been denounced by feminists as a patriarchal fantasy in morality-tale clothing. Ellen Handler Spitz, the author of the classic study “Inside Picture Books,” wrote that the story “perpetuates the myth of the selfless, all-giving mother who exists only to be used and the image of a male child who can offer no reciprocity, express no gratitude, feel no empathy — an insatiable creature who encounters no limits for his demands.”
With “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1974) and “A Light in the Attic” (1981), Silverstein turned another commercial noncategory — verse for children — into a bonanza. Like “The Muppet Show,” both books were a hit among grown-ups and children alike; “A Light in the Attic” spent 182 weeks on the New York Times general nonfiction best-seller list, including 14 weeks at No. 1.
Sendak and Silverstein had roots in the counterculture, but a deeper forerunner is another contrarian children’s book author, Theodore Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss. The son of prosperous German immigrants, Geisel studied at Dartmouth and Oxford and had a successful career in advertising promoting insecticide and Standard Oil (don’t tell the Lorax!) before turning to cartooning and then children’s literature. His first effort, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” (1937), a story that describes the wild fabrications a boy plans to tell his father before he ultimately tells the truth, was rejected 27 times before finding a publisher. He went on to Bartholomew Cubbins, Horton and the Grinch.
But the full flowering of his subversive genius came with “The Cat in the Hat” (1957), inspired by lists of words children could be expected to read. “How they compile these lists is still a mystery to me,” Seuss complained in an essay in The New York Times Book Review. The books recommended for young children, he complained, were far beneath their intellectual capacity.
And so “The Cat in the Hat” used only 223 different words of near monastic simplicity, showing that one could achieve the sublime under absurd constraints. The Book Review, in a typically glowing response, called it “one of the most original and funniest of books for young readers,” adding, “Beginning readers and the parents who have been helping them through the dreary activities of Dick and Jane . . . are due for a happy surprise.”
Today, Sendak’s, Silverstein’s and Seuss’ books define what we’ve come to think of as children’s literature. Their new books are no exception. “Bumble-Ardy,” the first picture book Sendak has written and illustrated in 30 years (it is based on an animated segment that appeared on “Sesame Street” in 1971), tells the story of a rambunctious pig who has never had a birthday party. Naturally, the one he gives himself — absent caregiver! dirty stunts! guzzled brine! — devolves into a mess. “Every Thing on It,” the fourth volume of collected verse from Silverstein, who died in 1999, contains poems about snotty pasta (“Betty, Betty, / Sneezed in the spaghetti, / Made it icky and gooey and wetty”). And “The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories,” a collection of Dr. Seuss stories that appeared previously only in magazines, features the kinds of nonsense that blend right in with the Stinky Cheese Man and SpongeBob SquarePants.
Books by Seuss, Sendak and Silverstein are now the classics we reach to when building our children’s libraries. They exemplify the traditions we defend. As Sendak put it at the end of our conversation, “Thank God we have grown up.”
Pamela Paul is the children’s books editor of the Book Review.