Once in a while, I come across books that are beloved by kids and families—some universally loved, others with a narrower but just as passionate audience—that I’m pretty sure wouldn’t make it through today’s acquisitions meetings. I’m not talking about books with dated, sexist, racist, or otherwise unacceptable social content; it’s pretty clear why those would hit the recycling bin now. The books I mean are simply off-beat, quirky, or darker than we adult bookmakers are currently comfortable producing / than readers are currently comfortable buying.
(Tangent about darkness in children’s books: there’s a strange dichotomy at work in today’s book market. On the one hand, we seem to want to sanitize nursery stories and popular tales: the wolf doesn’t get burned up in the three little pigs’ fireplace anymore, nor does Little Red’s hunter chop up the beast, and Santa no longer smokes a pipe in some versions of The Night Before Christmas. On the other, we allow darker and bleaker content into MG and YA than ever before. Murder has entered the younger middle grade market—action-adventure murder unaccompanied by normal human grief or consequence—and yet we are squeamish about Hans Christian Andersen’s red shoes, something Bruno Bettelheim would have a little to say about.)
The books I’m talking about not making today’s publishing grade are books with odd sensibilities, but they contain something that resonates in a fundamental way with children. Take The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, a Caldecott Honor-earning wordless picture book by the brilliant Molly Bang, published by Simon & Schuster in 1980. It’s an odd book, no question. As the Grey Lady wanders through town with her basket of luscious strawberries, she is followed by an eerie figure intent on taking her berries. She eludes him in a variety of ways, finally escaping him in the woods where he is distracted by the discovery of delicious blackberries. The book is suspenseful, creepy, lovely, and speaks to wordless fears and delights deep in human souls. It’s the kind of book that fascinates children, but the kind of book that many adults in the bookstore glance at and dismiss—unless they have already uncovered its magic themselves. Reading Molly Bang’s account of the making of the book reveals that it wasn’t an easy sell back in 1980, but it did find important champions. I didn’t know the history of the book before starting to write this post, but I love discovering that the book was published despite its oddness, that someone saw it through children’s eyes.
Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat by Morrell Gipson, illustrated by Angela, is another wild picture book. It was recently reprinted by the wonderful Purple House Press with a note from cartoonist Gary Larson, who wrote that he had been obsessed with the book when he was a little tyke and that “[a]s an adult, I’m thrilled to see that—after a long hibernation—he is once again roaming the forest of every child’s imagination.” The story follows a destructive bear who goes around smashing the houses of all of the forest creatures until they find a way to teach him a lesson. It’s a weird book and absolutely adored by kids. Perhaps it would find a publisher today, but I wonder if marketing and sales would balk at the alarming “squashing” and the strangely impersonal bullying of the bear.
Remy Charlip’s marvelous Arm in Arm has a hard time getting through adult gatekeepers to find its kid audience, which makes me wonder if it would have a chance in Acquisitions today. My sister and I spent hours poring over the clever illustrations, mini-stories, jokes, micro-plays and more in this creative bonanza of a book. Subtitled A Collection of Connections, Endless Tales, Reiterations, and Other Echolalia, this was definitely not a book that wrote down to its child audience. It sparked our imaginations, we acted out the plays, we drew and drew, inspired by the complex doodles and artwork in the book. When I leave the book with kids at the store, they get pulled into it the way we did, but when I show it to adults, they are a little confused by the title and bewildered by what it’s “supposed to be,” since it isn’t a traditional narrative story. I was delighted when Tricycle Press reissued this book in 2010, but I wondered what kind of reception the manuscript of Arm in Arm would receive today. There’s a difference between reprinting a proven title and taking on an untested one.
Today’s picture book field is a rich one. I actually think the past few years have seen a growth in its tolerance for creative experimentation—but some of these experiments have more adult than child appeal. I can’t help wondering if child-appealing but (some) adult-off-putting books are getting shorter shrift than they did in the 1970s and 1980s. What do you think?
And what beloved books from your past do you think might not make it to press in today’s world because of their quirkiness?