In the hearts and minds of children throughout the ages (not to mention the adults those children became) these authors live on as icons. They’ve taken us to magical worlds and taught us important morals and lessons. But they were also just people, and with all the inescapable trappings of human nature, they had their faults. As it turns out, even the authors of some of the most endearing and cherished children’s classics kept some sordid secrets that ended up left off the bio page. Some held pretty disparaging opinions of their fellow man (read: racist), some tried their hand at “adult entertainment” to pay the bills and some were just wholly unlikeable SOBs. However; nothing will ever change the beauty and power of these authors’ works, so please keep the hate mail to a minimum.
The granddaddy of kid’s lit Aesop’s fables such as “The Tortoise and the Hare” and “The Ant and the Grasshopper” offered simple moral lessons that ensured him adoration hundreds of generations later. Too bad he was such a miserable bastard everyone who knew him back in sixth century B.C. Greece hated his guts.
Not without good reason, Aesop was known for his scathing sarcasm, cutting insults and money embezzlement from Croesus, King of Lydia, who entrusted money with Aesop to be delivered to the citizens of Delphi, Greece, Aesop’s home town. Yikes, guy wasn’t running for the Good Neighbor Award, was he?
So well did he play the role of “Town Jerk” that the citizens of Delphi actually drove Aesop of a cliff where he met his end, although which particular insult drove the Delphinians to cast Aesop off a cliff is unknown. Kind of makes you wish we kept alive the tradition of tossing unpleasant entertainers off cliffs. 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.
Okay, so it was his military duty to make the enemy into a slant-eyed, buck-toothed parody, I guess. Why the German charactures fared much better is for you to decide.
Ironically, in his books as well as his private life, Geisel denounced racism, anti-Semitism, prejudice and intolerance…except when it came to those pesky Japanese. Geisel 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.
Yep, not a fan of Japanese people.
Oddly, Geisel already established himself as a children’s author before WWII, using Seuss, his mother’s maiden name, as a nom de plume. Geisel put the kid book writing on hold during the Second World War to fully throw himself into the war effort and 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”), made music for himself (“The Smoke-Off” – a tale of a marijuana rolling contest), co-wrote a screen play with David Mamet…oh, and worked for Playboy.
Now c’mon, who hasn’t worked for Playboy? Norman Mailer, Steven King, John Updike, Once upon a time Playboy was a total gentlemen’s magazine, combining high brow literature and journalism with naked women.
However; those above mentioned authors didn’t become children’s authors. They just wrote what you’ve come to know them to write. 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, Ursula Nordstrom, noticed the whimsy in Shel’s poetry and art style (“R” rated as it might have been) and suggested “Uncle Shelly” take a shot at writing a children’s book. And the rest, as they say, is history.
As kid-friendly as his work is, Maurice Sendak doesn’t balk at controversy. In a recent interview for the film adaptation Where the Wild Things Are, the interviewer asked if parents should be concerned that the story is too scary for kids, to which Sendak stated such parents can, “go to hell.”
In books such as Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak is known for exploring themes such as how children master their emotions, loneliness and the power of imagination. One theme you might not expect to find is the Holocaust. In an NPR interview, Sendak said his book In the Night Kitchen is an allegory for the Holocaust with Hitler-like bakers trying to cook a child. This admission came many 33 years after the book’s initial 1970 publication when In the Night Kitchen found itself on many school and library banned lists…for nudity. In the book a boy dreams of his clothes falling off and floating away into a surreal world called the “Night Kitchen.” You can see why Sendak employed nudity to mirror the experience of Jews in concentration camps, but he may also have invented a distraction for all the censors out there who focused on the boy’s twigs and berries and overlooked the fact they were reading an account of Jewish extermination.
Frank L. Baum
Baum’s early years in the late 19th century show a man fraught with incessant failure. You name it, he failed at it. Chicken farmer, theatre impresario, newspaper publisher, retail store proprietor—all went down the yellow brick road of bankruptcy. But no matter what new enterprise he started, he always came back to his passion for writing. Through his varied odd writing jobs, Baum picked up pieces of inspiration for what would become Oz. Baum lived in the Dakota Territory while editing a small town newspaper and the atmosphere of proto-South Dakota became the inspiration for Dorothy’s Kansas. In Chicago Baum saw the 1893 World’s Fair which gave him the idea for The Emerald City. By 1900, Baum finished The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which became an instant success. He wrote sixteen 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 wealthy and famous.
However; before his winning children’s writing, 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…”
Oh, they’ll be Kings in death. Well that’s a nice way to throw the natives a bone. There’s more,
“The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extirmination [sic] of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better…follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth.”
It’s true; two wrongs do make a right…when it involves genocide. In 2006 descendants of Baum openly apologized to Native Americans for any harm their ancestor may have caused.