Don't Tell the Kids!

The following is an article from Uncle John's 24-Karat Bathroom Reader.

Think writers of magical tales that enchant children are all sweetness and light? Margaret Wise Brown hunted rabbits and collected their severed feet while writing The Runaway Bunny, Ian Fleming wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang between James Bond thrillers, and Maurice Sendak modeled the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are on his Brooklyn relatives whose bad teeth and hairy noses he detested. Here's the dark side of other famous kid-lit authors.

AUTHOR: Kay Thompson

CLAIM TO FAME: In 1955 Thompson wrote Eloise, a tale about a pampered, mischievous little girl who lives with her British nanny, her dog Weenie, and her turtle Skipperdee in the penthouse of New York City's elegant Plaza Hotel. Eloise and its three sequels (along with a lucrative line of dolls, records, toys, luggage, and clothing) made Thompson a media star.

THE DARK SIDE: Thompson, who'd had a meager career as a singer, actress and songwriter, finally achieved stardom with Eloise and she had no intention of sharing the spotlight with anyone. From the beginning, she insisted that her name be on every Eloise book, above the title, as on a marquee. When she heard a rumor that Eloise was based on her goddaughter, Liza Minelli, Thompson snapped, "I am Eloise!" She was equally put off by the attention her collaborator, Hilary Knight, was receiving for his illustrations. She responded by canceling the nearly-finished fifth book in the series and blocking further printing of the Eloise sequels, putting Knight in dire financial straits. (After Thompson died in 1998, the books were re-released, and Knight started receiving royalties once again.)

AUTHOR: Shel Silverstein

CLAIM TO FAME: Silverstein wrote several books that became children's classics, including The Giving Tree, a bittersweet fable about the relationship between a boy and a tree. Since its publication in 1964, the book has sold more than five million copies and has been translated into 30 languages.

THE DARK SIDE: Before he started writing children's books, Silverstein was a full-time cartoonist for Playboy magazine. His work had a decidedly adult -even raunchy- air to it. So when his friend illustrator Tomi Ungerer, suggested he write for children, Silverstein brushed him off. But Ungerer was persistent and pointed to his own career: In addition to children's books, his output included political, antiwar, and even erotic books.

Ungerer introduced Silverstein to his editor, Ursula Nordstrom. She liked to publish "good books for bad children," and thought Silverstein would be a perfect fit. So in 1963, she published his first effort: Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back -the story of a lion who ate a hunter, learned to shoot the dead hunter's gun, joined a circus, and then returned to Africa with a group of humans to hunt lions. The next year, Silverstein came out with The Giving Tree, and equally morbid but (literally) sappier tale of a tree that loves a boy so much, it sacrifices itself down to its stump to keep him happy. The book caused quite a stir. Some saw it as a story of a beautiful relationship; others, as a worst-case example of self-destructive love. At a Giving Tree symposium in 1995, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard opined, "Tree's qualities would make her a terrible mother -a masochist who, quite predictably, has raised a sociopath."

AUTHOR: Laura Ingalls Wilder

CLAIM TO FAME: In 1932 Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods, the first in a series of books based on her pioneer childhood. The Little House books spawned a multi-million dollar franchise of spinoff books, mass merchandising, and a long-running television show.

THE DARK SIDE: Wilder is listed as the author of the Little House books that made her famous, but it appears that she had a lot of help from her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Lane was an accomplished writer whose work appeared in Harper's, Saturday Evening Post, and Ladies' Home Journal, and her short stories were nominated for O. Henry prizes. Though Lane suffered bipolar bouts that resulted in her losing confidence in her work, she discovered that she could still perform as editor and ghostwriter during those times. She ghosted several bestselling books by celebrity "authors" who either credited her for "editorial assistance" (Charlie Chaplin) or with the line "As told to Rose Wilder Lane" (Henry Ford). Lane's formidable skills have kept several generations of literary detectives trying to figure out how much she actually contributed to her mother's books. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a treasure trove of stories about early prairie living, but her first attempt to write them down, an autobiography titled Pioneer Girl, never found a publisher. So, in 1930, Lane began a collaboration that would turn her 65-year-old mother into a household name, and leave her in the shadows. Scholars have found substantial evidence that Lane read, edited, and revised her mother's work on every one of the Little House books. But if she acted as her mom's ghostwriter, it's a secret mother and daughter took to their graves.

AUTHOR: Roald Dahl

CLAIM TO FAME: With sales of more than 100 million books, Dahl ranks as one of the world's bestselling fiction authors, Many of his works have been turned into major motion pictures, including Matilda, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and James and the Giant Peach, the story of a boy whose parents are eaten by a runaway rhinoceros, leaving him stuck living with his horrible aunts, Sponge and Spiker.

THE DARK SIDE: When Roald Dahl was nine years old, his parents sent him from their home in Wales to St. Peter's, a boarding school in Somerset, England. The school offered an excellent education, along with regular canings by the headmaster for such minor infractions as eating or talking during class. His teachers graded him harshly, including one who wrote that Dahl "persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended." Homesick for his family back in Wales, Dahl felt abandoned, alone, and at the complete mercy of cruel adults. Given this history, it's no surprise that horrid grown-ups and abandoned kids appear in almost all of his children's books. But -as it turns out- Dahl could have given Sponge and Spiker a few lessons in how to be nasty. Sometime in the 1970s, he reportedly advised novelist Kingsley Amis to start writing children's books: "That's where the money is," he told Amis.

"I don't think I enjoyed children's books much when I was a child," Amis replied. "I've got no feeling for that kind of thing."

"Never mind," said Dahl. "The little bastards'd swallow it anyway."


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's 24-Karat Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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I'm glad to see I'm not the only one with serious qualms about The Giving Tree. I like a lot of Shel Silverstein's work, but I despise that book. Mary Ann Glendon's quote sums it up perfectly.
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