Are children’s book authors’ lives as squeaky clean as the tales they crank out to bookstores? The other day, I misplaced my better nature and took to the Internet for some research. As it turns out, even the authors of some of the most endearing and cherished children’s classics kept some sordid secrets that didn’t make it on the bio page.
The granddaddy of kid’s lit, Aesop’s Fables (like “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Ant and the Grasshopper”), ensured him adoration for hundreds of generations. Too bad everyone back in the 6th century B.C. hated his guts.
- Aesop was known for his scathing sarcasm, cutting insults and money embezzlement from Croesus, King of Lydia, in his hometown of Delphi, Greece.
- So well did he play the role of “Town Jerk” that the citizens of Delphi actually drove Aesop off a cliff, where he met his end. The particular insult that broke the final straw is unknown, but it kind of makes you wish we still tossed unpleasant entertainers off cliffs, right? Hey, is Glenn Beck busy?
Before you came to know the wubbulous and widdly-waddly-woo worlds of The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) worked for the military as Commander of Animated Propaganda during WWII. Geisel created such wartime features as this informational cartoon with a less-than-enlightened view of the Japanese.
- While Geisel denounced racism, anti-Semitism, prejudice and intolerance in his books, he fully supported internment camps for Japanese-American citizens during the war (one of which my own grandfather’s family was forced into).
- He even gave the Japs the “what-for” in his political cartoons.
- In fact, Geisel already established himself as a children’s book author before WWII, but he put the kid book writing on hold to fully throw himself into the war effort and to spew intolerant rhetoric.
Of all the authors on this list, Silverstein is surely the Renaissance Man. In addition to changing the entire landscape of children’s lit with his non-pandering, often whimsically macabre style in poetry collections such as Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic, Silverstein:
- Penned music for the likes of Jonny Cash (“A Boy Named Sue”) and made music for himself (“The Smoke-Off” — a tale of a marijuana-rolling contest);
- Co-wrote a screen play with David Mamet;
- Oh, and he worked for Playboy. Back in 1956, Shel’s pal, Hugh Hefner, encouraged the artist to draw cartoons and write poetry rhapsodizing on the subjects of lady parts and taking drugs. So it may have been a little surprising when, in 1963, Silverstein’s agent noticed the whimsy in his style and suggested he take a shot at writing a children’s book.
Frank L. Baum
Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became an instant success in the early 1900s. He wrote 14 more Oz books, which were also very popular but go largely unknown today. (Perhaps because they weren’t adapted into movies like the first book.) Through sales and other merchandising of the Oz series, Baum became quite famous.
- Before his winning children’s writing, however, Baum wrote rather inflammatory editorials on eradicating Native Americans.
- In two pieces published in 1890 by the Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, Baum argued the safety of white settlers depended on the extermination of the indigenous people who dare encroach upon Manifest Destiny. Baum wrote:
“…best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians…History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in latter ages of the glory of these grand Kings of forest…” Well hey, at least you’re kings in death, right?
- In 2006, descendants of Baum openly apologized to Native Americans for any harm their ancestor may have caused.
Find more of Cole’s writing at Fun with Cole