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Children’s Lit Questions From Beyond the Grave: A Wild Things! Interview with Jules Danielson and Betsy Bird

Today (August 5, 2014) marks the release of Wild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature by Betsy “Fuse #8” Bird, Julie “Seven Imp” Danielson, and the late, great Peter D. “Collecting Children’s Books” Sieruta. Full of historical perspective and behind-the-scenes dirt, the book is a joy to read. Go get yourself a copy. Go.

To celebrate, I did something a bit unusual – contacted the ghosts of some of the children’s literature legends discussed in the book. I wanted to see if they had some questions for Betsy and Julie. It turns out, they did:

1. Anne Carroll Moore

Question one: Why wasn’t I in the book more? (Related) Question two: Is there any figure you wanted to talk about more, but it didn’t work/fit with the way the book took shape?

Betsy: Baby, you know I love you.  And trust me, I actually personally cut a lot of you out.  The problem with you ACM is that the stories of what you got wrong (Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, etc.) are way more interesting than the stories about what you got right (basically establishing the whole of children’s librarianship in New York City, promoting multicultural children’s books long before the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag, etc.).  So to do you right we cut you down.  Sorry, lass.

As for figures we wanted to talk about more, I’m going to go with Winnie-the-Pooh.  We had this long and lovely section not just on Christopher Robin and his later life hatred of his own name, but also of the explosive battle that erupted when a British M.P. wanted the Pooh toys back in Britain in the 1990s.  You can, however, read the story on our Wild Things related blog of stories from the cutting room floor here: http://wildthings.blaine.org/?p=159

2. Robert McCloskey

Did you have to tell that duck story? About all the ducks in my apartment? I’m embarrassed now. Were there any stories you didn’t include because you didn’t know how they would be received?

Jules:  A portion of the original manuscript was dedicated to true tales behind awards speeches (as in, Newbery and Caldecott speeches). That was cut from our book, so we shared some of the stories at our site instead. We decided not to share one infamous story about an awards speech at this blog post, because the person who gave the speech is still living. … Are we too nice for our own good? Perhaps. But that was the decision we made.

Betsy: Yup.  There were actually a couple stories that we could have gotten confirmation on but would have seriously annoyed folks.  The speech story is one.  The dead cat story (God, I love the dead cat story) is another.  The thing is, there are a bunch of folks who will nod knowingly when they read these words.  If you want to be one of those people. hang out with us sometime.  Just don’t expect to see them written down on paper.  Or online.

3. Ursula Nordstrom

As someone who’s corresponded with a lot of children’s authors and illustrators in my day, who is someone who has passed that you wish you could have talked to?

Jules: Well, Ursula, I think you could have easily introduced me to Maurice Sendak, since you two were so tight. How I would have loved to have met the man at least once. Even just sitting in his presence and listening to him talk would have been enough. Sendak had such respect for the emotional lives of children, and he spoke his mind in a really refreshing manner. For these two reasons, I felt like, when he died, it was the end of an era in children’s lit.

Betsy: Personally Sendak scared me too much.  Even if you’d placed me in a room with him (and I came THIS CLOSE once to seeing him at the Carle Honors, only he got sick and couldn’t attend) I never would have ventured within 50 feet of the man.  The person I would have liked to sit down and have a beer with was Shel Silverstein.  Talk about an interesting life and fella.  I mean, you can’t sit down and talk with the guy behind the song “A Boy Named Sue” and not have an interesting conversation.  Not physically possible.

4. Laura Ingalls Wilder

What story do you think people will find the most interesting? That one about me and the serial killers is right up there, isn’t it?

Jules: Laura, I think the Benders story will take care of my nightmares for the next few decades. It is, indeed, a very chilling tale.

I think folks who are relatively new to children’s literature will be surprised by the antics of illustrator Trina Schart Hyman. (Those who have worked in the field a long time may already know the kind of mischief she got into in her books.) Actually, the three of us didn’t know the story about what Trina snuck into King Stork (the infamous witch’s table) until we were researching this book. Not even Peter knew, and he knew just about everything. It was a fun discovery.

5. Clement Hurd

What do you think is the best picture in the book? I’m partial to the author photo you dug up of me where the cigarette in my hand WASN’T airbrushed out. That must have been a tough to track down, eh?

Jules: Given my response to the previous question, I just gotta say the illustration from King Stork.

But every time I see the cover of Little Vampire Women in the last chapter, I laugh. And then when I read the caption, I laugh again. (Betsy came up with that one.)

Betsy: I’ll stand by that caption to my death, I will.  For my part, my favorite picture has got to be the one of Bilbo Baggins and Galdalf as penned by Maurice Sendak.  Whole worlds of woulda coulda shoulda open up when you see that image.  Sublime.

And with that, the séance is concluded. Thank you Betsy and Jules for taking part!

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.