THE BLOG
07/30/2014 08:24 am ET | Updated Sep 29, 2014

Startling Acts Of Mischief In Children's Literature

There's this perception out there that, when it comes to books for children, everything is sweetness and light and cute fluffy bunnies. But children's books are works of literature that deserve more than a little respect in their own right. Dictators ban them, governments try to use them to control the masses, and the creators have a tendency to act of their own accord.

So when we decided to write a book about some of the true stories behind your favorite titles you read as children, the obvious title to come to mind was Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature. And that's because you have to believe us when we say that there is a lot of mischief out there to be discovered.

Illustrator and Caldecott Medalist Trina Schart Hyman was an act of mischief all her own. In our book, we recount an infamous story of her bravado. While working on the illustrations for Jean Fritz's biography Will You Sign Here, John Hancock?, published in 1976, Hyman read less-than-glowing comments in a Kirkus review about her illustrations for Snow White, adapted by Paul Heins and published two years earlier. While painting a graveyard scene in the Hancock biography, she devoted a tombstone to Virginia Kirkus, the (very much alive) then-editor of Kirkus Reviews:

VIRGINIA KIRK
US
A NASTY SOUL
IS ITS OWN
REWARD.
1765-1776

The book's editors -- and many reviewers for a while -- missed the diss. Eventually, Coward-McCann removed the offending text from the gravestone, and all printings since then feature a blank slate in the lower right corner of the illustration. If you stumble upon a first-edition copy of the book (as one of us did at our local library, while researching), it's a little bit thrilling.

While researching and writing about this macabre tombstone story, we read Hyman's 1985 Caldecott acceptance speech, which opened with spunky comments about the "inscription on the tombstone." But in the same speech she also mentioned refusing to apologize for "the carving on the witches' table." This was a story we most certainly did not know, not one of us. After searching Hyman's books, looking for any and all instances of witches and tables, one of us talked to a colleague who remembered the controversy when it originally erupted and pointed us to exactly what we needed: King Stork.

In an illustration for this book, written by Howard Pyle and published in 1973, Trina gave an all-new meaning to the phrase "naked furniture" by including a copulating couple in the carving of a witch's table on page 22 of the book, which was awarded a 1973 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (in the Picture Book category). You can see the picture quite clearly in our own book.

In the words of our co-author, Peter D. Sieruta, who passed away two years ago: My goodness, what was she thinking? It's one thing to poke fun at someone in an illustration, but quite another to put what would be considered R-rated content into a picture book. It certainly seems that Hyman, however, had no qualms about stirring up trouble, as things like angry parent reviews at places like Amazon will show you. Hell hath no fury like a parent who's spotted the engaged couple in the witch's table, while reading King Stork to their kiddos. (Some parents have enough trouble trying to get past the scantily-clad princess of the tale, and that's to say nothing of the decapitated heads that also appear in Hyman's illustrations.)

There was no one quite like Trina Schart Hyman in children's literature, and there may never be again. Still, other children's book plots came close to matching her mischievous acts. Case in point: the mystery within the pages of Madeleine.

You remember the book, right? "In an old house in Paris / that was covered in vines / lived twelve little girls / in two straight lines." It was originally published in 1939, which means it's celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Our aforementioned co-author knew all sorts of facts about Madeleine. He knew when she made her true debut (the Newbery Award-winning The Golden Basket in 1936). He knew where her creator Ludwig Bemelmans got some of his ideas. (A hospital stay provided the appendicitis idea, as well as the crack in the ceiling, which looked an awful lot like a rabbit.) But most importantly, Peter knew about a great and grand mistake in the book. A mistake that, to the best of our knowledge, no one has ever caught before.

You see, we all know about the twelve little girls who lived in the house all covered in vines. What Peter found was a mysterious, never-seen-before thirteenth girl. Quelle horreur!

Hidden delights. Mysteries and surprises. Macabre moments of revenge. Who said children's literature was all gumdrops and rainbows?

Dr. Seuss himself referred to excessively cute children's books as "bunny-bunny books." He once gave a lecture about this very topic, which included a bogus children's book called Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny, Bunny -- all in an effort to make a point about what he called "the fuzzy, mysterious literature of the young." Then came Maurice Sendak, and cute and fuzzy was no longer en vogue anyway.

If you ever dismissed children's literature as purely juvenile fair unfit for mature minds, take a peek behind the curtain to discover some truly adult stories that are as informative and thoughtful as they are scintillating and nuts.

Betsy Bird and Julie Danielson are the co-authors of Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature [Candlewick, $22.99].