Innocent Children and Frightened Adults: Why Censorship Fails (at From The Square: The NYU Press Blog)

NYU PressIn recognition of the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, I’ve written a short piece for From the Square: The NYU Press Blog.  It’s called “Innocent Children and Frightened Adults: Why Censorship Fails.”  Here’s a brief excerpt:

While censorship will not keep young people safe, censors and would-be censors are right about two things. First, books have power. Second, responsible adults should help guide young people through the hazards of the adult world.

However, like all attempts to safeguard children’s innocence, removing books from libraries and curricula are not only doomed to failure; they are an abdication of adult responsibility and, as Marah Gubar writes of associating innocence with childhood, “potentially damaging to the wellbeing of actual young people.” A responsible adult recognizes that innocence is a negative state — an absence of knowledge and experience — and thus cannot be sustained. Shielding children from books that offer insight into the world’s dangers puts these children at risk. As Meg Rosoff notes, “If you don’t talk to kids about the difficult stuff, they worry alone.” Books offer a safe space in which to have conversations about difficult subjects. Taking these books out of circulation diminishes understanding and increases anxiety.

Check it out!

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A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teen-Ager (in the Iowa Review)

Iowa Review 45.2 (Fall 2015): art by Shaun TanI’m honored to be a part of The Iowa Review‘s special section on children’s literature, and even more honored that the journal has chosen to feature my essay on-line, for free. Two and a half years ago, “A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teen-Ager” began as a blog post.  It means a great deal to me that, revised and substantially expanded, the piece now appears in The Iowa Review‘s fall 2015 issue.

There are several reasons why. Though it’s immodest of me to admit, I think it‘s the best thing I’ve written. Also, I am a scholar: to be in a publication that prints the work of great writers is a singular honor. Yes, I strive to write with precision. I hope that each sentence inspires you to read the next one. But scholarly publication encourages the tendency to over-subordinate, obfuscate, or meander in arcana. As a result, stylish academic writing often seems an oxymoron, even though Helen Sword’s excellent book proves that it need not be.

Perhaps it goes without saying that it’s mind-blowingly amazing to be in the same issue with Shaun Tan (whose art also graces the cover) and Jeanne Birdsall? I mean, wow. To be included alongside writers I admire is wonderful. Finally, I’m also happy that the essay’s publication happens to coincide with the sixtieth birthday of Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955).  Perhaps that fact — coupled with its on-line presence and Shaun Tan’s artwork — will help more readers find their way to it.

So, a hearty thanks to Harry Stecopoulos for encouraging me to expand and submit this essay. Additional thanks to the Iowa Review‘s Deputy Managing Editor Jenna Hammerich, to the other contributors, to HarperCollins and the Estate of Ruth Krauss for letting us use the image, and, of course, to Crockett Johnson.

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Emily’s Library, Part 9: 14 More Books for Young Readers

Welcome to another installment in my attempts to build the perfect children’s library for my niece and, in so doing, guide others to great books for young people. Indeed, this post is being published as I depart to visit Emily — carrying three of the books mentioned below! (See if you can guess which three.)

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail, One Word from Sophia (2015)

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015)Averbeck and Ismail‘s book has a nice sense of humor, and a clever protagonist who loves words. What? That’s not enough for you? OK, well, it’s also a great example of what I call incidental diversity: it features characters of color, but race is not explicitly part of the story. (Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day is the classic example of this type of book.) Indeed, the protagonist’s family might be all of African descent; or there might be some of African descent and others of European descent. It’s not clear, and it’s not important to the story. I’m thinking that Emily will like the book because it has a smart and determined heroine, fun wordplay, and good jokes. If you need more reasons to check this book out, take a look at my blog post devoted to One Word from Sophia.

Kelly DiPucchio and Christian Robinson, Gaston (2014)

Kelly DiPuccio and Christian Robinson, Gaston (2014)Gaston does not quite seem to have his poodle sisters’ knack of behaving well, though he does his best. Then, a chance encounter with a family of bulldogs (one of whom is a poodle) makes Mrs. Poodle and Mrs. Bulldog wonder if there’s been a mix-up. A gently comic story about what it means to be part of a family, with an unexpected twist. Even better, because Robinson’s visual palette evokes classic children’s illustrators like Roger Duvoisin, the book feels like a classic from the moment you pick it up.

Marianne Dubuc, The Lion and the Bird (2014)

Marianne Dubuc, The Lion and the Bird (2014)A gentle tale given to Emily by a friend of the family — but one I would have otherwise given to her myself. It’s about making a new friend, the joys of friendship, and the sadness that accompanies the inevitability of being apart. (We cannot always be near those we love. Or, as the book says, “And so it goes. Sometimes life is like that.”) With few words and beautiful art, Dubuc’s book communicates the joy and loneliness of having and missing friends.

Michael Hall, Red: A Crayon’s Story (2015)

Michael Hall, Red: A Crayon's Story (2015)A big part of the fun of Hall‘s book is that the reader immediately knows something that the book’s characters fail to recognize. Though the main character is identified as Red, we can see that he’s just a blue crayon in a red wrapper. So, right away, readers understand that the words and the pictures contradict one another — the red wrapper does not accurately identify the crayon’s color. Of course, the metaphor is also hard to miss: superficial judgments based on labels fail to miss what’s inside a person (or crayon). But you don’t need to catch the tale’s allegorical elements to enjoy Red’s discovery that he is in fact Blue, and very good at drawing blue things, too!

Ben Hatke, Julia’s House for Lost Creatures (2014)

Ben Hatke, Julia's House for Lost Creatures (2014)The creator of the Zita the Space Girl comics directs his talents towards a new medium: Julia’s House for Lost Creatures is Ben Hatke’s first picture book. In it, independent-minded Julia — who looks to be about five but has the confidence and responsibility of someone older — sets up her home right by the sea. The house is vast. It’s cozy. It’s got knick-knacks, lots of books, and a workshop where she can make things. But it’s too quiet, and so she paints a sign, hanging it up outside the front door: “Julia’s House for Lost Creatures.” They start coming: Patched Up Kitty, a very sad troll, a mermaid, gnomes, and more! Soon, looking after all the lost creatures is wearing Julia out. So, she comes up with a plan. If learning to live and work with others is a message here, the book’s appeals reside in the quirky, spacious old house, the variety of creatures (each of whom has a distinct personality), and seeing resourceful Julia in charge of them all.

For more, including original sketches, see Jules Danielson’s post on the book.

Tove Jansson, Moomin’s Desert Island (1955/2013)

Tove Jansson, Moomin’s Desert Island (1955/2013)Drawn & Quarterly has been republishing Jansson’s Moomin comic strips in two forms: (1) large black-and-white books, each of which includes several narratives; (2) small, single-narrative color books. (They’ve added the color to Jansson’s original strips.) The latter are ideal to introduce young readers to Jansson and to comics in general: single story, nicely colored, and, well… Moomins! So, I’ve been giving these smaller books to Emily. Some of these narratives appear — in a different version — in Jansson’s novels. Others do not. This is one of the latter.  Read an excerpt at the publisher’s site (click on the word “excerpt”).

Tove Jansson, Moomin and the Sea (1957/2013)

Tove Jansson, Moomin and the Sea (1957/2013)This is an early and quite different version of the events narrated in Jansson’s novel Moominpappa at Sea (1966). Indeed, for those interested in the way that Jansson’s Moomin universe evolved, a comparison between this work and the (considerably darker) Moominpappa at Sea would be interesting. For young people, though, just enjoy this installment in the Moomins’ ongoing quest to live life on their own terms.  Read an excerpt at the publisher’s site (click on the word “excerpt”).

If you’d like to learn more about the Moomins, you might use my earlier blog post on them as a starting point. If you’re already a Moomin fan, then I highly recommend Boel Westin’s magnificent biography Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words (2014).

Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert, The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars (1967)

Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert, The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars (1967)To read this as a didactic story about not destroying others’ property is to miss all the fun. Sure, by the end of the book, the elephant does learn not to smash small cars. So, there is an appropriate ”lesson” here. But the joy is in the smashing. He smashes small cars and then sings about it:

Smashing cars! Smashing cars!

How I love to smash small cars!

Merrill — author of the classic children’s novel, The Pushcart War, which you should also read — even provides music for the song. Solbert’s crayon-and-ink artwork sets the playful tone for this tale of destruction and (ultimately, in the final few pages) reform. It’s a silly, joyous tale that offers an official advisory against smashing things, even as it embraces the impish impulse to destroy.

Sergio Ruzzier, A Letter for Leo (2014)

Sergio Ruzzier, A Letter for Leo (2014)Like Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird, Sergio Ruzzier’s book is about two friends, one of whom is earthbound and the other of whom is only temporarily flightless. That is, Leo — protagonist, mailman, weasel (but the cute kind of weasel) — spends his days delivering mail, punctuated by short breaks to play bocce or to chat with friends. He never receives any mail himself, until he happens upon a bird, stuck in a mailbox and stranded far away from his flock. Like Groot, the bird only says one word — “Cheep” — but (also like Groot) his face tells us enough about what he wants or feels. Ruzzier’s faces give even his minor characters with a real sense of personality. There’s the joyous, loopy expression on the dog’s face, as Leo delivers a package that can only be a giant bone; and the kind, open face of the hen who pours Leo a cup of tea. And then there’s the fact that Leo plays bocce — most children probably don’t know the sport, but its specificity makes Leo that much more real. Little details like these make the book a delight to read and re-read. The story of Leo and Cheep is a warm tale of a friendship that transcends differences in language and species.

For original sketches and an interview, check out Jules Danielson’ post on the book.

Birgitta Sif, Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance (2014)

Birgitta Sif, Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance (2014)I bought both of these Birgitta Sif books because I noticed that, on occasion, Emily has exhibited some shyness. I would not say that shyness is a dominant character trait, but it reminded me of my own childhood shyness, and how important it is for young people to know that it’s OK to feel shy. All of us feel shy sometimes. (Don’t we?) Even better, Sif’s work is wonderful — whether or not you’re afflicted by shyness. When no one is watching, Frances Dean dances in a joyous reverie, as she listens to the birds sing. However, “when people were around, all she could feel were their eyes on her” — even though the artwork shows people minding their own business, reading a book, talking the dogs for a walk, playing with a toy sailboat. (Each of Sif’s characters seems to have her or his own inner life; even individual birds have different personalities.) The gap between Frances’ awareness and Sif’s art hints at a way past acute self-consciousness: other people are paying less attention to you than you think. By the book’s conclusion, Frances dances. And some of the other characters dance with her, too.

Birgitta Sif, Oliver (2012)

Birgitta Sif, Oliver (2012)The title character of Sif’s first book prefers the company of his imagination to that of other children. He reads, creates art, plays piano for his stuffed animals, invents his own (solo) version of tennis, and has a tendency to bring his stuffed animals with him. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that, in many of Sif’s two-page spreads is a girl, who also enjoys reading and tends to travel while carrying her stuffed-animal friend in the crook of her right arm. Sif handles this subtly; all the characters in these spreads are doing their own thing. So, the similarities between this girl and Oliver could easily be overlooked. However, by the book’s end, the two — her name is Olivia — have discovered one another, and a friendship has begun.

For both of these books, a merry tip of the hat to Jules Danielson’s Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog, where you can read an interview with Sif (as well as posts on other Sif books).

Beatrice Schenck de Regniers and Maurice Sendak, What Can You Do with a Shoe? (1955)

Beatrice Schenck de Regniers and Maurice Sendak, What Can You Do with a Shoe? (1955)Clearly inspired by Ruth Krauss’s books of the early 1950s, What Can You Do with a Shoe? rises above other Krauss imitators via art from Krauss’s frequent collaborator, Maurice Sendak. I don’t know the story of the book’s creation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Schenck de Regniers also drew from her observations of children (as Krauss did). I chose it as a gift for Emily because I notice that she enjoys experimenting, combining clothes in novel ways, or using a household item in a way that it wasn’t intended. Featuring the gently mischievous, very real children of Sendak’s imagination, What Can You Do with a Shoe? honors a child’s impulse to experiment. And that’s good!

Frank Tashlin, The Bear That Wasn’t (1946)

Frank Tashlin, The Bear That Wasn’t (1946)You probably know Tashlin for his animated cartoons (featuring Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny) or his films (The Girl Can’t Help It), but he also wrote several children’s books: The World That Isn’t (1951), The Possum That Didn’t (1950), and The Bear That Wasn’t (1946). His former colleague Chuck Jones also created an animated adaptation of this one. The story’s premise? While a bear hibernates, men build a factory above his cave. When he awakens, the employees expect him to be working. He insists that he’s a bear; they don’t believe him. It’s a satire of conformity, and the absurdity of trying to be anything other than who you are. I mean, hey, if you’re a bear, you’re a bear!

Rowboat Watkins, Rude Cakes (2015)

Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)Rowboat Watkins‘ Rude Cakes is my favorite picture book of 2015. It has sentient pastry, cyclopses, and a delightfully off-kilter sense of humor. It’s classic in the way that Arnold Lobel or James Marshall are classic. I like the book so much that I wrote an entire blog post about it. Read the post and then, more importantly, read the book.

That’s all for now. There will be more “Emily’s Library” installments in the future! Meanwhile, here (below) are the previous posts in this series, and other links that’ll help you find good books for young people.

Related posts on Nine Kinds of Pie:

Looking for other great children’s books?  Try these blogs and other websites:

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Five reasons to get One Word from Sophia

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015)

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015) was published this month. Here are for reasons you should get (buy, borrow, barter) the book for the young people in your life — or for yourself. (Grown-ups can read children’s books, too, you know.)

  1. It’s funny. Sophia wants a giraffe for her birthday. So, of course, the four adults in her life — Mother, Father, Uncle Conrad, and Grand-mamá — need to be convinced. A clever child, Sophia crafts four pleas, each tailored to the specific adult. To her mother, a judge, Sophia offers some legal arguments, including “In the last fifty years, no giraffes have been recalled for defective parts, and new models have a particularly strong safety record.” To her father, a businessman, she explains that giraffes “are a good source of manure, which can be sold at a profit to garden centers and activists. In short, people will pay me for poop.” Yasmeen Ismail’s exuberant watercolor-and-colored-pencil illustrations show both Sophia’s sincerity and the absurdity of her aspirations — but never mock her big dreams.

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015): "In short, people will pay me for poop."

  1. The book loves language. A running joke — spoiler alert — is each adult’s claim that Sophia’s argument goes on too long. Averbeck has each character deliver this verdict with a different word (“verbose,” “effusive,” “loquacious”), which the book defines in the main text and in a little glossary on the inside back cover. Also, Averbeck subtly adjusts the language so that it echoes that of the formal proposal (for Sophia) and of the specific career (for the adult). For Uncle Conrad, a politician, “Sophia polled the other members of the household” — actually her stuffed animals, Mr. Bun, Tiger Eye, Pony Boy, Snakey Poo, and Ted — so that she can report that “Four out of five respondents are in favor of giraffes.” Her mother (the judge) renders “her decision” by saying “I will have to rule against a giraffe at this time.” Juxtaposed with Ismail’s expressive characters in a bright domestic setting, the workplace language is gently amusing.

Jim Averbeck and Yasmeen Ismail’s One Word from Sophia (2015): "The four problems were . . ."

  1. Incidental diversity. There are far too few books like Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day — or, what I like to call “incidental diversity.” What I mean by this is that the character’s race is incidental to the story. One Word from Sophia is a great example of incidental diversity. Indeed, as my friend Michelle Martin pointed out to me, the family could either be mixed-race or a black family with a range of skin tones. This ambiguity is an additional strength (how many picture books show mixed-race families?). In an interview with Jules Danielson, Averbeck described his response to seeing Ismail’s art for the first time: “I was surprised by the multi-racial cast, because it wasn’t evident in the line sketches. But I was also completely delighted, since I actually believe that #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Plus, the multi-racial family in the book reflects my own family, to whom I’ve dedicated One Word from Sophia. I wondered how Yasmeen knew that.”
  1. Sophia is smart and determined. This — in addition to the aforementioned three reasons — is why One Word from Sophia will soon be in Emily’s Library. I want my niece to have plenty of books featuring smart, ambitious, admirable female characters. The fact that the book has a sense of humor is also welcome — since Emily has a sense of humor, too.
  1. It has already been endorsed by three of the Niblings! For all I know, Betsy, Minh, and Mitali may also like it. I haven’t asked them. But both Travis and Jules have written about it: Travis lists it first in his “Ten to Note” for the Summer of 2015. Jules both interviewed the book’s creators and posted some of Ismail’s art and sketches on her blog. And now,… I’ve devoted a blog post to the book as well. It’s one of my favorites for 2015. (Another favorite is Rowboat Watkins’ Rude Cakes, to which I’ve devoted a separate post.)
A generous tip of the hat to Michelle Martin for introducing me to this book.

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Maurice Sendak’s Will

Maurice Sendak, Northeast cover (Hartford Courant Sunday Magazine, 19 Dec. 1993)

Wills offer unique insights into people’s lives — what they value most, how they see themselves, how they hope to be remembered. Ruth Krauss left most of her estate to homeless children, a fact which floored Maurice Sendak, when I told him: she died the same year that We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, Sendak’s book about homeless children, was published. Today, on what would have been Maurice Sendak’s 87th birthday, here is his will (click for a pdf).

And here is my inevitably subjective interpretation of what this 22-page document tells us about Maurice Sendak. If the named items in his collection of manuscripts, letters, toys, and ephemera tell us which literary and cultural figures were dearest to him, then those figures are:

  • Beatrix Potter
  • Mickey Mouse
  • Herman Melville
  • Henry James
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
  • James Marshall

Maurice Sendak, cover for Herman Melville's Pierre (1995)But especially Herman Melville, who is named three times. To the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Sendak gives all of his “rare edition books, including, without limitation, books written by Herman Melville and Henry James” (2), and his “collection of letters and manuscripts written by persons other than [him], including, without limitation, letters written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (also known as the Brothers Grimm) and Herman Melville; and the publishing contract for ‘Pierre’ between Herman Melville and Harper and Brothers Publisher” (3). His affection for all of these figures is well known. In 1995, he even did an illustrated edition of Pierre, dedicating the pictures “in remembrance of” his brother Jack, who died earlier that same year. What fascinates me is that he so loved the novel that he obtained a copy of Melville’s contract with Harper and Brothers.

Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "Youth is hot, and temptation strong" Sendak, Melville's Pierre: [untitled] Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "The secret is still a Sendak, Melville's Pierre: "Pierre and Isabel stood locked"

Sendak’s love for Mickey Mouse is also no secret. He named the protagonist Maurice Sendak's earliest extant drawing: Mickey Mouse (1934)of In the Night Kitchen “Mickey” after the mouse (and because “M” is Sendak’s own first initial), and painted that book’s “Mickey Oven” in the red of Mickey’s shorts and yellow of Mickey’s shoes. (Originally, he’d wanted to use an image of Mickey, but Disney refused to grant permission.) Sendak’s earliest surviving drawing (from 1934, the year he turned 6) is of Mickey Mouse. So, Mickey’s appearance in the will is more confirmation than revelation. Still, though, it is the first item he lists among those going to the Rosenbach: “Such articles of my Mickey Mouse collection as my executors, in their sole and absolute discretion shall select” (2). He then directs that “the remaining balance of [his] Mickey Mouse collection” go to the Maurice Sendak Foundation, Inc.

Maurice Sendak, detail from Mickey Oven, In the Night Kitchen (1970)

Suggesting that he wanted to help scholars study the works of those he collected, Sendak also took care to locate like materials together. When I interviewed him back in June 2001, he fretted over whether work related to his collaborations with Ruth Krauss should go with the rest of his materials or to the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where her papers are. In that conversation, he concluded that the Krauss work should go to Storrs. The will James Marshall and Maurice Sendak, Swine Lake (1999)indicates either that he changed his mind or forgot this earlier decision, but he does remember to send “all of [his] collections of books and related papers, drawings, works of art and letters created by James Marshall” to Storrs. He also gives his “two (2) walking sticks that previously belonged to Beatrix Potter and William Heelis” to the Beatrix Potter Society in London.

There’s something about these physical objects that captures the imagination — Maurice Sendak with Beatrix Potter’s walking sticks! Maurice Sendak with original letters from Mozart, Melville, and the Brothers Grimm! Maurice Sendak with vintage Mickey Mouse toys! What we collect reflects who we are. The books on the shelves, the art on the wall, and the saved childhood memorabilia all offer a glimpse into a person’s interior life. When I think of these things that were dear to him, I imagine him at home, contemplating his collection. I also wish I’d taken him up on the invitation to visit, but I was then too shy, too intimidated by the idea. (Visit the great Maurice Sendak? At his home? Me? Uh….).

Maurice Sendak's will (2011)His will suggests that, if we are to catch sight of Sendak’s inner life, we will have to glean it from his works and from the works of those he collected. The second item on the will’s first page orders the destruction of his personal papers: “I direct my executors to destroy, immediately following my death, all of my personal letters, journals and diaries” (1). As a biographer, I feel a pang of loss at this sentence — what insights these materials would have offered! But I am not writing Sendak’s biography. And whoever does will have plenty to work with. In addition to being a public figure (many interviews!), Sendak collected his non-fiction in Caldecott & Co. (1988), worked with Selma Lanes on The Art of Maurice Sendak (1980) and with Tony Kushner on The Art of Maurice Sendak Since 1980 (2003). All three of these works are partly biographical. Adding to that record, next year will mark the appearance of Peter Kunze’s Conversations with Maurice Sendak, which includes — for the first time — my 2001 interview.

Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963)I remember Sendak once saying, somewhat ruefully, that Where the Wild Things Are would be in the first line of his obituary. He was proud of the book, but he did so much more, and hoped people would recognize his larger body of work. As if to aid in that recognition, Sendak leaves his original works in libraries where others can study them. He gives his “designs of sets and costumes for operas, plays and ballets” to the Pierpont Morgan Library (2). To the Maurice Sendak Foundation, he bequeaths “All the works of art created by me for my books and all materials related thereto, including, without limitation, manuscripts, dummies, sketches of and for my books, changes to and proof sheets for my books, and all related ephemera” (5). Indicating that Sendak wants scholars to have access, he asks that the Maurice Sendak Foundation “make arrangements with the Rosenbach Museum and Library for the display” of these items. Indeed, he specifically asks the Maurice Sendak Foundation to use his house “as a museum or similar facility, to be used by scholars, students, artists, illustrators and writers, and to be opened to the general public” (4-5).

Rolling Stone, 30. Dec. 1976: cover by Maurice SendakAs you probably already know, the question of which materials go where is the subject of a lawsuit. (The Rosenbach Museum is suing the Sendak Foundation.) I won’t speculate on that dispute here, but I will say that authors’ and artists’ legal legacies are intriguing. Since wills and lawsuits are a matter of public record, they’re also available for our consideration. Indeed, though I don’t have the time to pursue this, someone should edit an essay collection titled In the Event of My Death: The Legal and Literary Afterlives of the Great Children’s Writers. In addition to authors’ and artists’ wills, there are other notable legal battles, such as those between A.A. Milne’s heirs and the Walt Disney Company, or Dr. Seuss Enterprises vs. Penguin Books (1997).

Posthumous lawsuits tell us as much about the artist’s friends and advisors as they do about the artist. But the will displays what and who was most important to the late artist. In this brief, speculative essay, I’ve focused more on the what than the who, but — as you’ll see, if you read the will — the who for Maurice Sendak is clear. It’s Lynn Caponera, Sendak’s caretaker and friend and, today, one of the executors of his estate. What’s so wonderful about Sendak’s will is that he remembers not just the friends and family who were dear to him, but all of us who care about art. So, on his birthday, I’ll add my thanks to a great artist not just for leaving a rich legacy, but for envisioning a future in which his own legacy can be appreciated and studied.

Further reading on Maurice Sendak (mostly on this blog):

Image credits: Maurice Sendak, “Northeast cover” (Hartford Courant Sunday Magazine, 19 Dec. 1993) from Sendak in Asia: Exhibition and Sale of Original Artwork (1996); Sendak, cover and four illustrations from Herman Melville’s Pierre or the Ambiguities (The Kraken Edition, 1995); Sendak’s earliest extant drawing (Mickey Mouse, 1934) from Selma G. Lanes, The Art of Maurice Sendak (1980); Sendak Sendak, detail from Mickey Oven, In the Night Kitchen (1970); James Marshall and Maurice Sendak, Swine Lake (1999); first page of Maurice Sendak’s will (2011), courtesy of probate court in Bethel, Connecticut; Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (1963); Sendak, cover for Rolling Stone (30. Dec. 1976).

Thanks to Sara & David Austin for sending the will, and of course to the probate court in Bethel, Connecticut, for providing access to it.

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The Cyclops Who Mistook His Cake for a Hat

Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)The best picture-book debut of 2015 is Rowboat WatkinsRude Cakes. Yes, I know it’s only May 7th. And I don’t claim to have read every picture book published thus far. But it’s going to be hard to top this one.

(Spoiler alert! There are spoilers below! Lots of them!)

The notion of an ill-mannered, sentient cake is funny on its own. But Watkins goes further. In the first half of the book, the titular character — a pink, bratty cake — refuses to listen to its parents or to wait in line, bullies a cupcake and a Cake in bathtub. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)marshmallow on a playground, and glowers in the sudsy water of the bathtub before reluctantly going to bed. So far, it’s a comic didactic tale. Then, enter a Giant Cyclops. Really. The cake is jumping up and down on the bed, playing with the little stuffed toy blue Cyclops that it stole from the cupcake, when — through the open window — a giant blue Cyclops hand enters, plucking the cake from its bedroom, lifting it up towards its toothy open mouth… only to wear the cake on its head. As Watkins narrator explains, giant Cyclopses “LOVE to wear jaunty little hats.” And this Cyclops thinks that the cake is a hat.

Rude cake jumps on bed. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)Watkins’ doodley, expressive line and soft watercolors provide his cakes and Cyclopes with the necessary solidity and silliness. Think of James Marshall’s hippo duo, George and Martha. Or of Laurie Keller’s misunderstood pastry, Arnie the Donut. As in any book by Marshall or Keller, Watkins’ characters have a real presence, and joy. Lots of joy. When I read the book, it feels like Rowboat Watkins is standing just behind the illustrations (where I can’t see him), and he’s smiling happily to himself. Or maybe he’s smiling at the fact that I am also smiling while I read his book.

He has imagined an oddly coherent universe populated by polite Giant Cyclopses, one rude cake, two beleaguered playmates (the cupcake and the marshmallow), and the rude cake’s exasperated parents (also cakes). In other words, Watkins understands Dr. Seuss’s principle of “logical nonsense”: as Seuss put it, “If I start with a two-headed animal I must never waver from that concept. There must be two hats in the closet, two toothbrushes in the bathroom and two sets of spectacles on the night table. Then my readers will accept the poor fellow without hesitation and so will I.” So, for instance, the Cyclops seems to come out of nowhere until you remember that the chocolate cupcake had a toy Cyclops, and the rude cake had a Cyclops poster over its bed. Later in the book, the child characters (rude cake, cupcake, marshmallow) frolic with Cyclopean balloons — each balloon has a giant eye. Theirs is a world in which Giant Cyclopses not only exist, but also are — in toy form — a cherished part of childhood. And why not? After all, we live in a world where we’d think twice about cuddling real live bears, but quite happily give children teddy bears to cuddle. In Watkins’ world, Giant Cyclopses are similar.

Rude cakes never say thank you. From Rude cake jumps on bed. From Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes (Chronicle Books, 2015)

By the book’s end, our bratty cake learns some manners. But, as in Marshall’s George and Martha or Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, Rude Cakes sublimates its didactic impulse, expressing its lesson via the pleasures of story. Watkins’ book has a moral, but what makes Rude Cakes work is its playful, loopy storytelling. In his baked goods and Cyclopses, Watkins offers an unusual but perfect metaphor for how larger forces can shake an obnoxious child out of its selfish egoism, revealing the kinder, gentle person within.

Rowboat Watkins is an original, singular talent. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

P.S. If you’ve not read Jules Danielson’s magnificent interview with Rowboat Watkins, then get on over to Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and read it now. Then, read it again. Mr. Watkins has thought very carefully about picture books. You could learn a lot from him.

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Reading the Penderwicks

Since you’re reading this blog post, you may have already read one or more of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks books — the fourth of which, The Penderwicks in Spring, was published last month. In case you haven’t, here’s why you should.

Jeanne Birdsall, The PenderwicksJeanne Birdsall understands the emotional intelligence of children. She knows that they feel love, guilt, joy, loss, anger, excitement, jealousy, and sadness just as acutely as adults do. In fact, they often feel them more acutely than adults do, because children lack the full range of language and experience that allows us grown-ups (well, some of us grown-ups) to manage intense emotions. Evincing an acute awareness of children’s vulnerabilities and strengths, Birdsall’s four Penderwick sisters — and honorary Penderwick Jeffrey Tifton, Ben (who arrives in book two), Lydia (book four) — are also resilient, thoughtful, funny, fully realized characters. They and the adults in their lives feel like real people. Even though you meet them for the first time in these novels, you recognize them instantly.

Like Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters, Lynn Johnston’s Patterson children, and the protagonists of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwick sisters feel so real because we get to watch them grow up. Especially Batty, my favorite character. She’s just four years old in the first novel. Her best friend and confidante is Hound, the family dog. She’s shy, and far more perceptive than the either the adults or older Penderwick sisters give her credit for. This may be one reason why The Penderwicks in Spring is my favorite: it focuses the most on Batty, now ten years old, exploring her joy in discovering her musical talent and her misplaced guilt over — well, I don’t want to give that away. (Read the book!)

Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks in SpringThe Penderwicks in Spring is also my favorite because each Penderwicks novel is better than the previous one. Given that the National-Book-Award-winning The Penderwicks (2005) is already great, I’ve often marveled at her ability to make each successive novel is even stronger than the previous one. How does she do it? First, I think that — like the late Terry Pratchett — hers is a talent that just keeps getting better. Second, the most recent three Penderwicks books are not sequels. They’re each stories unto themselves. They’re windows into the lives of these characters, offering insights into different facets of their developing selves. Each book focuses more on a different Penderwick or group of Penderwicks, but somehow manages to advance the stories of all family members. Third, Birdsall is great at free indirect discourse — third-person narration, closely aligned with one particular character. This gift allows her to shift perspectives seamlessly, from Rosalind (the eldest), to Jane, to Skye, to Batty, to Ben, to Lydia, letting us know what they understand and what they don’t. Fourth, she understands how inadequate the word “children” is to describe a group of people who differ in ages, interests, genders, experiences, and their capacity for relating to others. This understanding makes her characters feel more like actual people. And it makes me care about them, and want to spend time with them.

Hers are fun and funny family stories, novels about how to love even those family members who may try your patience. They’re books with great animal characters (Hound! Duchess!), and human characters who understand the joy and beauty of music. They are novels you’ll want to read and re-read. If you’ve read her work, you already know this. If not, then you’ll just have to trust me on this one.

Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street Jeanne Birdsall, Penderwicks at Point Mouette Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks in Spring

There are four books in all, each subsequent one taking place at a later moment in time. Begin on a summer holiday with The Penderwicks. Return to the family’s lives in The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (2008). Join them for another summer vacation (a year after the first book) in The Penderwicks at Point Mouette (2011).  Come back home, five years later, for The Penderwicks in Spring.  (She’s currently writing the fifth and final Penderwicks novel.)

If you’ll be at or near Kansas State University on April 23rd (tomorrow), she’ll be speaking at 4pm in the Student Union, room 226. Free and open to the public! Come on by.

I wrote the above to introduce Jeanne Birdsall’s talk. Since it’s far more than I can use in an intro., I’ve posted the full text here. (Tomorrow, I’ll speak just a fraction of the above.)

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Six Spots of Seuss News

Today would be Dr. Seuss’s 111th birthday! Actually, it is his 111th birthday, but Theodor Seuss Geisel is not around to celebrate it — he died in 1991, at the age of 87. In his honor, here are Six Spots of Seuss News …for all of you who yearn for Seuss. (For those who don’t, I have no use: go sing the blues in sockless shoes.)

Wisconsin Public Radio1) I’ll be talking to Central Time‘s Rob Ferrett on Wisconsin Public Radio, today (March 2nd) somewhere in the 5 o’clock hour. I was told that it’d begin at 5:40 pm Central. According to WPR’s website, I will be giving “the story behind the new book,” and helping “look back at the life of the legendary author.”  Not in Wisconsin?  Not to worry: you can listen live.

UPDATE, 3 March 2015: Here’s a direct link to the audio. 9 mins.

2) From Dr. Seuss’s “The Advertising Business at a Glance” series (1936), here is “The Copy Writer” (click for a larger image).

Dr. Seuss, "The Copy Writer" (1936)

Thanks to Samantha Owen for giving this to me, as an end-of-term/successful-completion-of-her-Master’s gift, last year!  For two more examples from “The Advertising Business at a Glance,” see p. 175 of Charles Cohen’s The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss (2004).  You can find other examples of Seuss’s advertising work elsewhere on this blog, too — such as here (several examples) and here (Ford TV ad). Or, better, just go straight to UCSD’s Advertising Artwork of Dr. Seuss site.

Dr. Seuss, What Pet Should I Get? (2015)3) What Pet Should I Get? As you have no doubt heard, a new Dr. Seuss book will be published this July. People have been asking me about it.  Here are a few answers to your questions.

Q: Have you seen it?

A: No. The manuscript is among the materials donated by Audrey Geisel (Seuss’s widow) to UCSD’s special collections in 2013 & 2014. I haven’t done research there in about ten years; I was last there in 2007, to give a lecture.

Incidentally, in its story on the news of this donation, the San Diego Union-Tribune published a page from what appears to be What Pet Should I Get?  It seems that the book’s working title was Pet Store.

A story board complete with typewritten notes taped from the Dr. Seuss book, "The Pet Store" (UCSD)

Q: Is it legit?

A: I have no reason to doubt its legitimacy. In addition to the existence of the above page (evidently from the book in question), Seuss wrote far, far more than he published. As he once said, “To get a sixty-page book, I may easily write a thousand pages before I’m satisfied!”

During the period that he wrote it (1958-1962, according to the press release), Seuss was so prolific that he started to publish books under other pseudonyms — that way, “Dr. Seuss” wouldn’t have more than one book coming out each season. The first such book was Ten Apples Up on Top! (1961), illustrated by Roy McKie and credited to Theo. LeSieg (which is “Geisel” backwards). All the LeSieg books were not illustrated by Seuss. Most were done by McKie, but several featured the art of others, including New Yorker cartoonists B. Tobey, George Booth, and Charles E. Martin.

Since there were already two of his books coming out in 1961 (The Sneetches and Other Stories, and Ten Apples Up on Top), Seuss may have decided against publishing another that year — or in whatever year he wrote it. He published two books in 1958, one in 1959, and two in 1960, one of which was One fish red fish blue fish.

Q: The press release says the book features the two children from One fish two fish red fish blue fish. What do you make of that?

A: One fish two fish red fish blue fish is a non-narrative book — Seuss’s first children’s book to lack a story. It’s more of a concept book, a series of episodes in which various fantastical creatures appear. The boy and the girl recur in a dozen or so of these episodes, most of which are only a couple of pages long.

My guess is that, while writing One fish two fish red fish blue fish, Seuss found himself with a full-length story featuring the book’s unnamed brother and sister. Since there was no room for an entire, book-length narrative in this collection of small episodes, he cut it.  Or, he may have written the full story first — What Pet Should I Get? — and then, one section of it inspired him to create (instead) an entire non-narrative book featuring the two children and the curious animals of One fish two fish red fish blue fish.  A third possibility is that What Pet Should I Get? is an earlier version of what became One fish two fish red fish blue fish.

For more, tune into Wisconsin Public Radio during the 5 o’clock hour (Central Time) today — probably at 5:40 pm.

Dr. Seuss, One fish two fish red fish blue fish (1960)4) The Fish in the Court.  Speaking of One fish two fish red fish blue fish, Justice Elena Kagan cited the book in a Supreme Court case last week.  The gist of the case (Yates v. United States) is that, when caught with undersized grouper, a Florida fisherman attempted to get rid of the evidence by throwing it (all of the fish) back into the sea. Officials charged the fisherman under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which prohibits destroying “any record, document, or tangible object” that might impede a federal investigation. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court actually sided with the fisherman, ruling that Sarbanes-Oxley only applied to documents and not to fish.  In her dissenting opinion, Kagan disputed the notion that a fish is not a “tangible object”:

As the plurality must acknowledge, the ordinary meaning of “tangible object” is “a discrete thing that possesses physical form.” Ante, at 7 (punctuation and citation omitted). A fish is, of course, a discrete thing that possesses physical form. See generally Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960). So the ordinary meaning of the term “tangible object” in §1519, as no one here disputes, covers fish (including too-small red grouper).

You can read the entire ruling on the Supreme Court’s website.  The above appears on page p. 29 of the pdf — p. 2 of Kagan’s dissent.

Thanks to Gary R. Dyer and Nathalie op de Beeck for the tip.

5) The Dr. Seuss Rap Quiz

Which of the following groups has no songs that reference Dr. Seuss? Also, if you try to Google this, you may get the occasional NSFW lyric. So,… don’t use Google. Use your brain.  Choose only the correct answer or answers.  First person to get the right answer will receive a Seuss-ish gift. Seriously.

A) A Tribe Called Quest

B) Beastie Boys

C) Blackalicious

D) Michael Franti & Spearhead


F) 3rd Bass

Tomorrow, I will post the answer at the very end of this post. I will also tell you which of these artists’ songs include references to Seuss or his works.

Dr. Seuss, Cat in the Hat's hat6) Was the Cat in the Hat Black? LIVE! March 10th! That’s “LIVE!” as in “LIVE in concert” because, on March 10th, I’ll be giving a fully illustrated version of this talk plus (for the first time!) some of the introduction to the book of which it will be a part.  When? Where?

It’s at 4:15 pm, Watson Forum, at DePauw University, in Greencastle, Indiana.  More details via DePauw’s Dept. of English “Events” page.  Another reason for you to come: Michelle Martin will be giving a talk at 7:30 pm, in the Prindle Auditorium: “From the Kitchen to the Edges: Hair Representations in African American Children’s Picture Books.”  These are free and open to the public.

If you’d like to read “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?,” click on this sentence and/or email me for a copy.

Since it is Seuss’s birthday, you might enjoy perusing other posts tagged Seuss.  Here’s a selection:

Occasionally, I get asked to talk about Dr. Seuss:

  • “New Window into Dr. Seuss’s genius” (26 Feb. 2014). John Wilkens’ article in the San Diego Tribune discusses new Seuss material that his widow, Audrey, donated to the Dr. Seuss Papers at UCSD.
  • “Dr. Seuss: Mini-Biography.”  A&E Biography (2013).  Time: 4 minutes.
  • All Things Considered. Lynn Neary, “‘The Bippolo Seed’ : The ‘Lost’ Dr. Seuss Stories” (13 Apr. 2011): audio & transcript.  Charles Cohen & I talk about the new book of “lost” Seuss stories (edited by Charles).  Time: 3 mins, 30 secs.
  • Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (22 Dec. 2010): audio | transcript. Reverend Derrick Harkins, Maria Salvadore, and I talk with Diane Rehm about the Grinch.  Time: 1 hour.
  • Morning Edition. Lynn Neary, “Fifty Years of The Cat in the Hat” (1 Mar. 2007): audio & transcript. Anita Silvey and I talk with Lynn Neary about the Cat in the Hat.  Time: 7 mins, 20 secs.
  • Talk of the Nation.  Steve Inskeep, “Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Dr. Seuss: A New Book Looks Back on the Life of Theodor Geisel” (10 Feb. 2004): audio.  I was a bit nervous at the beginning (I believe it was my first time on live national radio), but after the first few minutes I seem to settle into it well enough.  Time: 1 hour.

Though the website appears to have been designed to impede its utility, Random House’s Seussville‘s author section includes a bio. and timeline I wrote — the former heavily influenced by Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel.  (If you read only one book about Dr. Seuss, the Morgans’ bio is the one I’d recommend.)And… that’s all.  Happy Read Across America Day!*

*Each year on or near March 2nd (the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), the National Education Association sponsors Read Across America, designed to promote literacy. This year, it’ll be celebrated on Monday, March 3rd. Read more about it at the NEA’s website.

Read Across America: An NEA Project

ANSWER TO QUIZ (added 3 March 2015)

Alas, Cat’s valiant guess proves incorrect.  Apart from her, no one else took a stab at the question. I put the quiz in at no. 5 to see if anyone would actually read that far down. Either only Cat did, or my quiz measured not readership but the difficulty of answering the question.

The correct answer is C) Blackalicious.  You’d think that the group behind “Alphabet Aerobics” would have a song that references Dr. Seuss.  But, as far as I know, they don’t.  A Tribe Called Quest has an R-rated Seuss reference in “Clap Your Hands” (1993).  Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham makes an appearance in Beastie Boys’ “Egg Man” (1989) and gets alluded to in 3rd Bass’s “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “Green Eggs and Swine” (both 1991).  RUN-DMC name-checks Seuss in “Peter Piper” (1986), and Michael Franti & Spearhead’s “East to the West” (2006) mentions “the Lorax who speaks for the trees.”

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Sidewalk Flowers; or, the Poet and the Picture Book

JonArno Lawson & Sydney Smith, Sidewalk Flowers (2015)

This picture book is a wordless poem, written by a poet yet rendered by an artist. If that description sounds like one of the philosophical questions posed by JonArno Lawson’s poems (“can you remember / how you thought / before you / learned to talk?”), it should. Lawson conceived the book, and Sydney Smith drew it. Or perhaps I should say: Lawson had the vision, and Smith put it on the page.

Sidewalk Flowers’ protagonist, her red hoodie calling to mind Ezra Jack Keats’ Peter, is the book’s poet, open to the experience of the world, able to see her surroundings more fully than her preoccupied father. Her openness to her environs also recalls the protagonist of The Snowy Day (1962): both children walk through their respective neighborhoods, finding beauty in the everyday, moments of connection, and quiet insights that their busy elders tend to miss. She is the poet because of her capacity — if I may borrow Lawson’s description of his own poetic process — “to make unexpected discoveries” (Inside Out 29).

two-page spread from JonArno Lawson & Sidney Smith, Sidewalk Flowers (2015)

She discovers the flowers that most grown-ups would dismiss as weeds. She gathers them from between the gaps in the paving stones, the slim circle round the base of the signpost, anywhere that a persistent plant has found those “chinks in the dark” (to quote Roethke) and burst into bloom. Her ability (in the book’s first half) to perceive the radiance of these neglected flowers yields (in the second half) to an even greater capacity to share that beauty with others. Instead of hoarding her bouquet, she gives flowers to people (a man sleeping on a park bench) and animals (a small dead bird) until, upon arriving home, she has a just enough flowers to give some to her mother and two siblings.

It’s a poetic picture book, in its attentiveness to what us non-poets overlook, and to the deeper meaning of small gestures. Sidewalk Flowers is also a perfect example of why a poem is a perfect analogue for a great picture book. As Maurice Sendak once observed, the picture book is “a complicated poetic form that requires absolute concentration and control” (Caldecott & Co. 186). It does. As works like Sidewalk Flowers demonstrate, the picture book can also convey — to quote another poem of Lawson’s — the idea that “The truth may be simple / But its impact is complicated” (Think Again 21).

 Works Cited

Keats, Ezra Jack. The Snowy Day. New York: Viking, 1962.

Lawson, JonArno. “Tickle Tackle Botticelli.” Black Stars in a Night Sky. Toronto: Peldar Press, 2006. 116.

Lawson, JonArno. “What I Saw.” Think Again. Illus. by Julie Morstad. Toronto: Kids Can Press, 2010.

Lawson, JonArno, ed. Inside Out: Children’s Poets Discuss Their Work. London: Walker Books, 2008.

Lawson, JonArno and Sydney Smith. Sidewalk Flowers. Toronto and Berkeley: Groundwood Books, 2015.

Roethke, Theodore. “Root Cellar.” The Lost Son and Other Poems. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1948.

Sendak, Maurice. Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books & Pictures. 1988. Noonday Press, 1990.

More about Sidewalk Flowers and its creators

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The Niblings: And Now We Are Six

The Niblings
Well, as a group, the Niblings are actually two years old — we started in February of 2013. But we four children’s-lit bloggers have just become six children’s-and-YA-lit bloggers! For the official announcement, read on!

The Niblings (consisting of bloggers Travis Jonker of 100 Scope Notes, Jules Danielson of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Philip Nel of Nine Kinds of Pie, and Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production) are pleased to announce two new members of their happy little sphere.

Mitali PerkinsTo fill the much-needed YA slot, Mitali Perkins joins us. A distinguished author, responsible for such books as Rickshaw GirlBamboo PeopleSecret Keeper, and this April’s upcoming Tiger Boy, Mitali has maintained her blog, Mitali’s Fire Escape, since 2005, where she discusses books between cultures. You may also find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Minh LeWe’ve been impressed by and big fans of the work of Minh Le for years. Not only has he been blogging for Book Riotthe Huffington Post, and Bottom Shelf Books, but he recently sold his debut picture book, Let Me Finish!, to Disney-Hyperion. You can also find him on Twitter.

Since the Niblings are also moving into our third year as a collective, I’m concluding this post with a look back at Hilary Leung‘s Lego rendition of the Niblings logo (original version, seen at the top of this post, was designed by Megan Montague Cash). Leung shared this with us via Facebook, right after we announced our debut, in February 2013. With thanks to Mr. Leung, here’s his Lego logo!

Hilary Leung's Lego version of the Niblings logo (designed by Megan Montague Cash)

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