Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta, 276 pp, RL: ALL AGES

Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature is a behind-the-scenes look at the grown-up aspects of writing children's books written by three children's book specialists, Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta, who passed away in 2012. Having been a fan of the blogs of Betsy Bird (fuse#8, which was picked up by School Library Journal a few years ago) and Julie Danielson, areviewer for Kirkus (7 Impossible Thingsan amazing celebration of children's book illustration with wonderful interviews) I've been waiting to get my hands on Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature for quite a while now! Even better, I am participating in a blog tour for the books and Julie Danielson has written a post especially for books4yourkids.com! 

Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature is written in the same conversational tone the authors use on their blogs, making the book read more like a gossip session than an academic tome, which feels like the perfect bridge between the worlds of kids and adults - playfully informative or informatively playful. Sometimes I just don't want to know how the sausage is made, so to speak, but I did find factoids and historical information (like the fact that Ludwig Bemelman's Madeline originally appeared in his Newbery Honor winning novel, The Golden Basket, or the fact that Robert McCloskey fed red wine to the live artist model ducks that he kept in the studio he shared with Marc Simont in order to slow them down and better sketch them and the curious question of why Laura Ingalls Wilder lied about Pa hunting serial killers in a 1937 speech) that had me endlessly engrossed and googling wildly. 

But, as a longtime bookseller, my favorite chapter was "And to Think That I Saw It on Hollywood Boulevard: The Celebrity Children's Book Craze." While celebrity children's book authors take a pointed and, in most cases, well deserved bashing in this chapter, I appreciated the critical insight and industry background that provide a foundation for the authors' point of view. Besides enumerating the many ways in which the celebrity authored children's book displays an "inherent level of disrespect for the craft of children's literature," they point out the fact that the illustrators of these celebrity picture books often do not receive the monetary or proprietary respect they deserve, working in the shadow of a "star." Another chapter that stuck with me long after reading, and which Julie Danielson elaborates on below, is "Kids Love 'Em, Critics Hate 'Em: And Vice Versa," a historical look at the evolving quality (and quantity) of children's literature which, at its heart, is about the hit and miss attempts by adults to understand what kids like. The chapter is also about what happens when a miss with kids (like The Giving Tree) becomes a hit with adults, the kind of book that adults always purchase and enthusiastically give at baby showers or thrust into little hands. Back in 2011 I wrote a post titled, "A Discussion of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree," in which I tried to make sense of the way my feelings about this book changed from childhood to adulthood to parenthood and learn how Silverstein himself interpreted his story. This is by far my most commented on post, having received almost 25,000 views in three years and, as the authors prove in this chapter, the single picture book with the widest variety of interpretations that elicits greatest, most passionate feelings of love and hate. So, please read on to hear what Danielson and the authors of Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature have to say about this:

In Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, which I wrote with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, we include a chapter that can be boiled down to one word: Gatekeeping. If an adult writes a book for other adults, it goes from that author to the reader with very few people in between. If an adult writes a book for a child audience, it passes through the hands of many people who will determine whether or not it’s fit for children – those in the publishing field, parents, librarians, teachers, etc. This particular chapter involves looking at the history of gatekeeping, and we’ve named the chapter “Kids Love ‘Em, Critics Hate ‘Em  … and Vice Versa.” What are those books, we ask (for one), that the grown-ups of the world may think are just right for child readers, yet children dismiss ? 

Once upon a time, author Jane Yolen called three very popular, contemporary picture books the “Triumvirate of Mediocrity.” If I tell you which ones, why then, I’d be giving away all our book’s secrets!  But her comment touches upon the fact that many picture books that get passed around today may often be adult books in disguise. That is, they’re sweet and syrupy tales, often very sentimental and aimed at the older reader. (Adults are certainly more capable of sentimentality than are children by virtue of the fact that they’ve been on the planet longer.)

Some would argue that one such tale is Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, a wildly popular book that’s never gone out of print. Quite possibly the most polarizing book of children’s literature, it tells the story of a selfish boy (who grows into a man) and a very giving, maternal-like tree. 

When we started writing Wild Things, we asked authors and illustrators who were game to answer a series of about a dozen offbeat questions about writing and publishing books – just to get some stories goin’. (Their responses ranged from funny to insightful to I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.) We emailed those same people (plus some) to ask simply, “What do you think of The Giving Tree?” The responses fell very firmly into two camps: Those Who Would Water It with Praise and Those Who Would Chop It Down with a Buzz Saw. As for me, that section of our book---just some of many responses we got are a sidebar in our “Kids Love ‘Em…” chapter---is one of my favorites. 

Evidently, Silverstein himself said it’s merely a story about a tree and a boy. Period. Nothing more to be read into it. “One suspects him laughing in his beard,” Eric A. Kimmel has said – perhaps in the great tree in the sky. For those of us left here, we sit on the stump and shake our head at its great ability to so polarize those of us who love children’s books so dearly. 

Past and future stops on the WILD THINGS blog tour:

August 5: 100 Scope Notes
August 6: There's A Book
August 8: Guys Lit Wire
August 11Book Riot
August 11: GreenBeanTeenQueen
August 14: Wendy on the Web
August 18: Into the Wardrobe
August 20: The Book Nest
August 21: Random Chalk Talk
August 22: Children's Corner

Source: Review Copy

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