‘Dr. Zeus’ and ‘Mo Williams’? Sigh.


Elizabeth Bluemle - July 23, 2019

People in every field of endeavor must encounter misunderstandings from the general public. In bookselling, there are many common misperceptions: customers thinking we order our books from that online megalith, customers thinking we clear 100% of a book’s cover price, customers thinking we are making a profitable living at our work (hahaha).

I don’t expect people outside the field to have more than the vaguest clue about how our operations work. But I do, I find, expect them to pay attention to the names of extremely famous authors.

Year after year, browsers have wandered through the picture book aisle, asking for Dr. Zeus. This willful ignoring of the initial S in Dr. Seuss’s name drives me a little crazy. Just because it rhymes with the name of a major Greek god, there is no good explanation for changing the name to Zeus. People manage to pronounce the last two s’s in Seuss without any trouble. They are ignoring the alphabetical evidence right in front of them: Seuss! Seuss! S-as-in-snake-Seuss!

Apologies to Dr. Seuss — and the Greek Pantheon.

I’m a little more understanding about the mispronunciation of Mo Willems’ name, but not much. Williams is a very common last name, so I can imagine the first time a reader sees “Willems” on a book cover, the brain scans quickly and assumes “Williams.” But at this point, Mo Willems is possibly the best-known picture book artist in America. And actor Willem Dafoe paved the ‘Willem’ way years ago. A quick sounding-out of “Willems”—a completely phonetic name, after all—should do the trick.

Apologies to Mo Willems and thanks to Danmeth (the artist of the Robin Williams GIF meme I cadged).

I also wonder if people just don’t hear the difference between their pronunciation and others’, because if they did, surely they would become curious and ferret out the correct answer. At least, I do. Overhearing folks variously pronounce titles like “A Man Called Ove” and authors like “Ntozake Shange” always leads me to the internet for an authoritative answer. It’s just not that hard to find out.

Of all the things to get irked by, I admit, this is pretty small potatoes. It’s tiny tater tots, in fact. But there’s something lazy about not bothering to learn someone’s name. Maybe I’m especially annoyed by these two examples because I’ve grown up with a name no one could be reasonably expected ever to pronounce correctly upon sight, whereas Seuss and Willems are pretty self-explanatory, as pronunciations go.

Years ago, I was going to introduce Kate DiCamillo at a conference breakfast. We’d never met, and she hadn’t yet appeared in any videos or interviews online, so I hadn’t heard her speak her own name out loud. I wrote an introductory email to her and in it, I asked, “How do you pronounce your last name? Is it Dee-CaMILLo? Dih-CaMILLo? DEE-Camillo? DIH-Camillo?” And she revealed that she pronounces it “Dee-CaMELLo.” Good thing I asked.

Bonus tidbit: My all-time favorite treatment of children’s book author names comes from Jon Scieszka’s 1996 Horn Book article in which he tackles “some of the peskiest, most difficult to pronounce author/illustrator names on the children’s book circuit today,” providing laugh-out-loud ‘helpful’ sentences demonstrating pronunciation and usage. (The formatting in this linked article is a little odd, but if you are willing to scroll down past the empty white spaces, your patience will be rewarded.) If you’re like me, that article will lead you to Jon Scieszka’s fantastic Zena Sutherland lecture—”What’s So Funny, Mr. Scieszka?”—after the reading of which you should be in such a good mood that you won’t care if someone mangles an author’s name, even if it’s yours.

What are your pet peeve author/illustrator mispronunciations?

4 thoughts on “‘Dr. Zeus’ and ‘Mo Williams’? Sigh.

  1. Leslie Hawkins

    I love the resource that Sergio recommended and have made use of it many times, including the time I was lucky enough to introduce Kate DiCamillo. Like you, Elizabeth, I came up with many possible ways to mispronounce her name. I was sure I would flub the name of the most famous author I was ever likely to host and would have to slink away in shame and turn in my bookseller badge.

    Reply
  2. Rebecca

    Baldacci is constantly mispronounced as Balducci or Baldacki. Scottoline is Scot-o-line. Those are the two that I hear the most often and drive me up a wall

    Reply
  3. Sergio Ruzzier

    In case people don’t know this, here’s the useful and fun Author and Illustrator Pronunciation Guide from TeachingBooks: https://www.teachingbooks.net/pronunciations.cgi

    I get my last name mispronounced all the time, even in my native Italy, where they don’t believe a name can end with a consonant. And then there was my Italian teacher in middle school who insisted my name was of French origin (it is not), and so called me ruse-YAY for three years, in spite of my protests.

    Reply
    1. Laura Harrison

      Thanks, Sergio for that link! So helpful and fun! Btw, at my store it is usually the names Rick Riordan and J.K. Rowling that customers have the most trouble pronouncing.

      Reply

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