The 10 Wild Ways of Your Favorite Children’s Books

Notes from the book Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature

Many people think that wild children’s books are a contradiction in terms, but the fact is that wild authors write some of the best children’s literature out there.

I ran across Wild Things while working in my volunteer position at my local public library. Three library professionals who are also book bloggers wrote this book, and here they share their combined hidden knowledge of the children’s book industry.

One of my many literary weaknesses is books about children’s literature. I loved to read so much when I was young (that hasn’t changed), and I read the same books so many times, that I still remember many of them. I even remember where some of them were located in my public library.

Some of this gossip…should I say documented gossip…I’ve heard before. I wrote a whole series about the Little House books, for example. But there are many more tidbits that were new to me. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Shel Silverstein developed his wild children’s books after a publisher saw his work in Playboy Magazine.

Yes, the Playboy, but he mainly did travel writing, if that makes you feel any better. These days, most kids are familiar with him because he is THE “children’s” poet elementary teachers seem to know about, but his work is actually pretty subversive. I’m not sure that teachers or parents really pay attention.

Perhaps they just know The Giving Tree, which I’m coming to believe that Silverstein may have meant ironically given his total body of work.

I’m one of the people who isn’t a fan.

When Harriet the Spy was first published in 1965, readers were shocked by Harriet’s “cross dressing”.

Harriet’s breaking and entering on a daily basis, or all the other things she does in Harriet the Spy apparently wasn’t as shocking as her high-topped Converse. Children’s lit author KT Horning writes that although some girls blue jeans and hooded sweatshirts, girls absolutely did not wear high topped sneakers.

Sport’s role as a caretaker for his father and Janie’s interest in science were also considered a bit weird.

Aren’t we glad times have changed, at least a little?

If you are a Harriet fan, you might want to check out the 2 sequels written by Louise Fitzhugh, The Long Secret and Sport. Other books about Harriet are ghostwritten. Nobody’s Family is Going to Change is less well known, but I read it when I was a kid, and I liked it.

If you are a Harriet fan, you might want to read the outstanding 2020 biography of Louise Fitzhugh, Sometimes You Have to Lie.

The writer of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, was initially an actress who wrote “purple prose” for newspapers.

Quoted from Wild Things, “The clip clip clip of fastenings giggling deliciously as they fly apart…and then the silky hush of intimate things, fragrant with my fragrance, steal softly down, so loath to rob me of my last dear concealment…” (197).

I was surprised that no collections of this work have been published, but I guess no one has gone to Australia to dig them up.

Some of the most famous wild children’s books, the 1950’s and 60’s, the “Golden Age” of children’s literature, identified, at least in private, as LBGTQ+.

The list includes these, among others:

Margaret Wise Brown, author Goodnight Moon, among many others

Maurice Sendak, author Where the Wild Things Are and many others

Arnold Loebel, who wrote the Frog & Toad series, one of the only “easy readers” recognized by the Newbery Medal

Tomie dePaola, who wrote Strega Nona, among others

Wild Things says: “It is impossible to discuss the history of stories behind children’s literature without acknowledging the great contributions mad by these authors, illustrators, and editors (to say nothing of librarians and agents). It should come as not surprise that the greatest stories written for children are those produced by people who have felt outside of the mainstream in some manner. Unique perspectives yield unique books. It is difficult to be gay and not see the world in a way that is slightly different from that of your straight peers” (54).

Robert McCloskey gave red wine to the live ducks in his house to serve as models for Make Way for Ducklings.

One male mallard loved it so much that he chased the females away. No world on what vintages they preferred.

A book by Garth Williams, now probably best known for illustrating the Little House books, was accused of promoting miscegenation in the 1950’s through his wild children’s book about rabbits.

If the the term miscegenation is not in your working vocabulary, it’s because it means “the inbreeding of people considered to be of different races.” In other words, it’s not a thing. Never was, really.

When you look at the cover of The Rabbit’s Wedding, the problem is obvious, right? Why else would Williams have depicted a white rabbit and a black rabbit?

You have to remember that in the 1950’s, anything red was also suspect. The old days really weren’t that good.

Kay Thompson, the author of Eloise, was famous for being a performer, not an author.

Did you ever wonder why the cover of the Eloise books read, “Kay Thompson’s Eloise” rather than, “‘Eloise’ by Kay Thompson. Nowadays, people remember Kay Thompson for her Eloise books rather than being a piano prodigy, starring in Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire or being the world’s most famous nightclub act.

During her lifetime, Thompson got so sick of being associated with Eloise that she pulled all but the first book from publication. The rest were out of print until she died, when Eloise takes a Bawth was finally published for the first time.

Note: The Eloise books written by Kay Thompson are Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grownups, Eloise in Paris, Eloise at Christmastime, Eloise in Moscow, and Eloise Takes a Bawth. The rest were ghostwritten after her death.

Madeline was originally a minor character in a children’s novel.

Ludwig Bemelmans published The Golden Basket in 1936 and Madeline in 1939. The Golden Basket is about a family’s visit to Bruges, Belgium. Madeline makes an appearance with her classmates at the cathedral there.

Incidentally, Bemelmans met a little girl recuperating from appendicitis he was hospitalized for a car accident. He also saw a crack on the ceiling shaped like a rabbit in his hospital room.

Roald Dahl was a kind of James Bond ladies’ man spy during World War 2.

Roald Dahl worked for the British Security Coordination who created propaganda to promote British war interests, and Dahl’s special job was to help convince the U.S. to join the Allies in the War. A family friend said, “‘I think he slept with everybody on the East and West Coasts that had more than fifty thousand dollars a year” (199).

Because of his talents, Mother England called him to start an affair with American Congress member (and playwright) Clare Booth Luce, who was outspoken about supporting policies that were not helpful to the U.S. He apparently found her sexually exhausting.

Clare Boothe Luce is most famous today for writing the classic play/movie, The Women.

6, not 5 Children originally won Golden Tickets in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

There was a sixth character named Miranda Mary Piker, who was a “nasty, smug teacher’s pet” who got cut from the final novel. Dahl published this chapter as “Spotty Powder”, and is available in the collection Spotty Powder and other Splendiferous Secrets.

If you want to read the rest of the story, check out Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in children’s literature, by three librarian/children’s book bloggers. Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult will make you think even more about wild ways in children’s books that you never noticed.