Reading Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature was the perfect way to cap off 2014. Written by children’s book bloggers Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta (who passed away shortly before the book was published), it offers an insider’s look at the kidlit world in all its absurdity: scandals! book-banning! in-fighting! In short, it’s about how the adults behind the children’s book industry behave like adults, instead of the angelic, bunny-loving writers that many grown-ups imagine them to be.
“With this book we hope to dispel the romanticized image of children’s literature, held by much of the public, of children’s authors writing dainty, instructive stories with a quill pen in hand and woodland creatures curled up at their feet,” says the Wild Things! authors in chapter one.
Having set the ground rules, Bird et al plunge into the juicy anecdotes: the author who killed her mother with cutlery; the bawdy, sexist book written by the Berenstain Bear series authors; Roald Dahl’s years as a British spy–which involved seducing a congresswoman to influence U.S. foreign policy.
Not all the stories are meant to shock. Some, like the backstory of how Jerry Spinelli got his start in writing, are awkwardly hilarious. Others show missed opportunities–like how an editor’s mistake deprived the world of a Maurice Sendak-illustrated version of J.R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In its best moments, reading Wild Things! is like listening to a master storyteller spin tales about storytelling giants.
Their focus on the classics–e.g. A Wrinkle in Time, Make Way for Ducklings and Madeleine–makes the book accessible to a lay audience, and the depth of their research ensures plenty of new material for kidlit enthusiasts. For instance, I’ve heard a lot about efforts to challenge or ban Harry Potter, The Giver and The Golden Compass…but I had no idea about the objections to Shiloh and Bridge to Terebithia based on their use of swear words (the list includes damn, hell and Lord, as in “Lord, he was tired.”)
I also appreciated the sidebars, which allowed the writers to have some fun without interrupting the narrative. In one sidebar, Betsy Bird admits she never understood the appeal of Island of the Blue Dolphins. Another sidebar lists the “winners” of the School Library Journal–sponsored awards given to the worst children’s books published in the 70’s and 80’s (quick, can someone start a petition to resurrect the awards?). But the best sidebar is the one where authors make their case for or against The Giving Tree–the ultimate love-it or hate-it book. For the record, I’m with author Laura Purdie Salas, who says: “Really, I just wanted the story to end with the boy chopping the tree down and the tree falling on the boy, thereby making the boy the inaugural recipient of the Darwin Award.”
I have no complaints about how the book was written or what’s in it. Rather, my biggest disappointment has to do with what’s not in the book. Because it tends to focus on classics from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, newer authors get scant coverage. Jon Klassen gets referenced once, and Mitali Perkins gets an interesting sidebar, while people like Jane Yolen and Louise Fitzhugh are mentioned again and again. I suppose it’s easier to get honest and bizarre anecdotes about older (or deceased) authors than younger ones still trying to establish their reputations, but that’s a flimsy excuse. Wild Things! has a fantastic chapter on the recent trend of celebrity-written children’s books, and another on the history of LGBT authors and characters, culminating in a discussion of emerging books about the transgender experience.
Given the multiple campaigns over the past few years to increase diversity in children’s books, I naturally expected to find some coverage on the lack of writers or illustrators of color. Alas, those represented in the book are even less diverse than the writers represented in the publishing world today. Pioneers like Walter Dean Myers and Louise Erdrich don’t even appear in the index. It’s a glaring omission that detracts from an otherwise wonderful book. I can only hope it’s fixed in a future edition. After all, in 20 years, many of the younger authors working today will have become legends, so there will be plenty of anecdotes for a new and expanded version.