Youth, Subverted Wild Things! frolics through the subversive nature of children's literature

Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature

Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta (Candlewick, 2014) 278 pgs with index and illustrations

This recent publication by co-authors Bird, Danielson, and Sieruta takes aim at the fuzzy bunnies of children’s literature. The bunny, a central image of derision in the book, is emblematic of the unfortunate (and false) image of the children’s writer and librarian held by the unschooled public as well as writers for adults. In its 278 pages, the book takes that on in a number of ways.

The book mixes its contents between seven full chapters and a few of what are called “Behind-The-Scenes Interludes.” In the introduction, “Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature,” the authors share their goal of upsetting “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.” The opening chapter shares anecdotes of the irreverent, profane, sordid, exciting, edgy, daring, even unhygienic lives of children’s writers such as Neil Gaiman, Clement Hurd, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and more. The collateral damage sought in the authors’ assault on the perception of cuteness is the belief in children’s books as transitory, simple, easy, culturally unenduring, without significant emotional and intellectual impact on the lives of children.

The first full chapter is on subversive children’s literature. The chapter clearly celebrates the subversive children’s story. They examine the subversive over time—from Heinrich Hoffman’s Der Struwwelpeter (1845) to MAD magazine (founded 1952)—and show the ways that subversion can be achieved in books, both in their perceived function as well as the content: a book that resists didacticism is subversive much in the same way that a book about a taboo subject is, regardless of the intent. Subversion leads to creative thinking in the reader, they argue. It is not clear, though, whether we should consider the subversive behavior of authors separately from the subversive content of some children’s books. The relationship seems unclear. Is the fact that some children’s authors are as scandalous as those famous, bad writers for adults more a matter of arguing for the “coolness” of children’s authors? Is that different than the argument that books that buck convention have a purpose, role, and are often unconsidered when assessing the artistic and social value of children’s books? Also, there is a tendency to throw the bunny out with the bathwater here and later in the book. I am unsure that bunnies need to be sacrificed on the altar of edginess in order to point out the subversive nature of some books and authors. In other words, a book (or chapter) about subversion does not have to demonize the conventional to make its point. The fact that these things operate on a continuum of degree rather than a binary of subversive and cute is not considered.

To the authors’ credit, they don’t restrict themselves to cases that are universally considered absurd but include tough calls about classics.

Subversion can be shocking, and it is often revealing, but the book does not make clear whether it is necessarily progressive. Is it subversive for children’s literature to reflect the new or emerging status quo? They argue that “as society becomes more or less permissive and its status quo changes, that change is mirrored in children’s books. When society’s rules shift, so do the rules of children’s literature.” So is that subversion or reflection? A book on girls being submissive and doing what the boys say would be subversive today, but would it be celebrated here, “delighting hip school librarians across the nation”? Is it enough for subversion “to upset conventions and make the world a more interesting place”? I thought some nod to Alison Lurie’s well-known, witty, and accessible Please Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature (1998) would have been appropriate.

I am unsure sure whether Louise Fitzhugh’s sexual identity or Roald Dahl’s over-active sex life makes their books any different, but it does make for some interesting anecdotes, which is a strength of the book. There is an unabashed sense of gossip in this book. I get the image of a table at an American Library Association banquet at which we get dished the goods about well-known figures in the industry: “If you can’t say anything nice about Lemony Snicket, well, come sit next to me and say it, dahling.” There is a guilty pleasure to it, without doubt. I found this opening chapter the most assailable but also filled with interesting information.

The first interlude, “Scandalous Mysteries and Mysterious Scandals,” is an eight-page revelation of issues of plagiarism and accused plagiarism, ghost writing, and dubious sequels. The interludes serve as interesting pace markers in the book. Following a long discussion about a subject of mischief, a shorter subject with more anecdotes is offered before moving on to another lengthy issue. It has the effect of interval training.

When the authors turn their attention from the generally subversive to a specific subject focus, like the chapter on GLBT literature for youth, they hit their stride. This is where the book moves from general gossip and anecdotes about edgy authors and book content to a consideration of the subversive importance of the relationship between author and text and the reading public. In this really fine chapter, the authors show the how the lives of authors had to be in keeping with the image of children’s authors (in contrast to writers for adults) and how differently writers navigated those pressures. This chapter takes on case studies of Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown, Arnold Lobel, Louise Fitzhugh, and other GLBT authors whose writing and careers were affected by their sexualities. We get a sense of the secrecy, social pressure, and special nature of the children’s book industry that is different by kind than those seen in the larger publishing world. These are good, important, little known stories. I made special note of titles and issues for my own use in class.

The authors move from one tough subject to another here without interlude. The chapter on book banning is another good example of connecting really interesting anecdotes and material from authors’ lives to a focused subject of subversion. The anecdotes—an obvious strength of this book throughout—are interesting and instructive. To the authors’ credit, they don’t restrict themselves to cases that are universally considered absurd but include tough calls about classics. So while we can laugh at the concerns of having a black bunny marry a white bunny in Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding (1958), we are asked to consider the implications of censoring language in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The chapter reviews different types of challenges, reviews cases of challenged Newbery winners, and considers the issue of dated classics with unfortunate world views; the reverse issue tackled by the chapter is the phenomenon of the initially controversial book that now makes many fewer waves, such as Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind, a book published in 1982 about two girls in love.

The next interlude is a hodgepodge of little known stories about books and authors called “Some Hidden Delights of Children’s Literature.” Here we learn about Jean Fritz’s and Trina Schart Hyman’s methods of taking artistic revenge on reviewers (which I am mindful about here), Lemony Snicket’s surprising cover art appearance, and the near miss of Sendak drawing illustrations for The Hobbit. This is a place of rest and amusement in the interval training.

The matter of aesthetic value and reader response is the subject of the next chapter. Here the authors discuss the history of pulp and its literary judgment in children’s literature as well as the role of criticism in the world of children’s books. Of special interest is the influence of the Stratemeyer Syndicate on publishing trends in children’s literature. The battle between arbiters of high culture and the goals of the publishers to flood children’s homes with inexpensive (and cheap!) adventure stories is the stuff of legend. The authors seem to accept pulp as long as it is not cute. Is the pulp narrative its own form of subversion, then? Is the series book a progressive or merely unavoidable nose-thumbing at the Newbery and other awards given by librarians? The authors show how the different forces in the children’s book game—publishers, librarians, critics, editors, and children themselves—were and are often not on the same page regarding value. In one section, they point to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964), Marcus Pfister’s The Rainbow Fish (1992), and Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever (1986) as examples of polarizing books: they are loved by as many as they are hated. Criticism, they point out, is a much more widely exercised option in the internet age.

In the next chapter, the authors pursue what I can only imagine is a shared pet peeve (and shared with me): the celebrity-turned-children’s-author. The authors can hardly contain themselves from vivisecting the celebrities who have discovered the joys of lending their names to ghost-written books for cash. The ones that are ghost-written are much to be preferred to the ones actually written by celebrities (with the exception of Jamie Lee Curtis, who is actually good). With ample venom, the authors successfully mock the full complement of the famous who dabble in an art form and expect to be taken seriously. Despite some hand-wringing over the fact that book publishing is part of a capitalist system, the chapter does a good job of considering the impact of the celebrity children’s book on other books in the market, the tactics of publishing companies in making choices about the gamble to publish these gimmick books, and the impact it has on the perception of the genre. The Material Girl does not, cannot survive this chapter. The chapter ends with the line “Go get ‘em, kids!” I enjoyed their assault.

As a form of relief following the celebrity hunt, we have a behind-the-scenes interlude with the reassuring title “Sex and Death.” In this section we learn not about sex and death in children’s books but the sex lives and deaths of (and murders by) children’s authors. Everything that you thought you wanted to know about Roald Dahl’s dalliances, The Lambs’ criminal records, and Wanda Gág’s appetites is here in seventeen pages of detail. They begin the section with sex and end with death; the reverse order might have been more cheering.

The last chapter, “From Mainstreet to Wallstreet: Children’s Books in a Post-Potter World”—concerns itself with ongoing and future trends in children’s book publishing. While there is much of interest here about the ways that Rowling and Meyer made it big and all that follows, there is a strange speculation on the part of the authors about the lasting place of children’s books in popular culture, as though the New York Times’ best-sellers list—its invasion by children’s books and subsequent farming off to its own list—determines that. With the success of those series, the authors conclude that “suddenly children’s books were part of popular culture—and the trend shows no sign of slowing down.” It seems odd to think that the authors do not consider, given the history of the industry that they write about, that it has been part of popular culture since the beginning.

I enjoyed reading this book, but throughout I questioned who the audience might be. The book is in turns indignant, conspiratorial, didactic, gossipy, scholarly—it seems to have a different notion of the reader with each section. Ultimately I wonder if the book is an insider’s book for insiders, as the advance praise by children’s authors on the dust jacket suggests. There is some preaching to the choir, some inside jokes for people who know the significance of Heather having two mommies and that everyone poops (allusions to children’s book titles), but there is also a sense that the authors want to appeal to those who might have the wrong image of them as people who work in children’s literature. There is an undertone of a corrective: “We aren’t bun-headed prigs; we ride Harleys. We are not adorbs.” In an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, a children’s author and blogger, Betsy Bird responded to the question “who is your intended audience?”:


“That was a question we had right from the start. To what extent do you specialize? When our book was still in its monolith state, we had a lot of stories that were hugely interesting to us, but might not catch the eye of someone who wasn’t already into children’s literature. So when we honed things down, we realized that we’d have to narrow our focus a bit. [ . . .] In the end we hope that this book will appeal not only to people who already work with children’s books in some fashion but also to those adults that have fond memories of the books of their youth and might be curious about some of their back stories …”


I think the book’s content and delivery leans toward the professional first and the casual reader of children’s books a bit lower on the list. The book’s writing is very accessible, however. These people are good writers. The prose is clean, clever, and a joy to read. The book has a great pace (see interval training metaphor above!) and provides great laughs as well as ideas to chew on. The book feels much like a good class: there are jokes, serious discussions, playfulness, a sense of authority, and a clear love of the subject. While I have my questions about it in places, I would recommend it, in order, to other people in the children’s literature field, those who are interested in the publishing industry, well-read people in general, and Rita Skeeter. But there I go dropping names.