Picture Book Writers: Children’s Author Biographies

by Emily Z.

In the other half of my library life I plan library storytimes for children. Before I ran away and joined the library, I ran the children’s department at a bookstore. At this point I’m no longer certain which came first, a love of children’s literature or a livelihood that demanded it. Either way, I still try to make time for such books, even ones I’ve read before (alright, especially ones I’ve read before). Increasingly, I wonder what makes the authors of our childhoods (and their creations) so beloved? Is it simple nostalgia? Do we automatically cherish the books read to us when we’re young or do we ultimately prefer the ones we discover on our own? How do some children’s books eventually become classics, especially when they’re not initially well received?

You might also wonder what makes the authors of these books so unique. What type of person is a children’s author? Do they all share some ineffable personal quirk—an abundance of imagination, immaturity, wisdom, or what? I haven’t yet found any one unifying element in my research. Essentially none of the writers I’ve read about started out writing children’s books—it was a second career or third or fourth. Author biographies are doubly intriguing to me because you get not only the story of someone’s life, but a look in at how their life experiences might have influenced their works.

That’s where I’d like to go today, into the lands of Oz, the Wild Things, and the varied territories of talking animals. I’m also choosing to leave out a few heavy hitters like Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.This certainly isn’t because they’re uninteresting (and I feel kind of bad now because some of them have birthdays coming up) but there are so many books and films out about them at this point, I wouldn’t know where to start. I thought I’d give some other authors a shot at the spotlight.

In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown
by Amy Gary

When we think of the works of Margaret Wise Brown, we might picture the striking but familiar bedroom of Goodnight Moon or perhaps the frenetic affection of Runaway Bunny. Who do you see, though, when you try to imagine Margaret herself? Who wrote these sweet and gentle stories? For some reason, I always envisioned a mannerly grandmother figure, perhaps because I associated the books with my own grandmother reading them. As it turns out, I was very mistaken. Margaret was a firecracker. She was an unstoppable, athletic, passionate, obstinate, impulsive, and intelligent woman in her prime. She chased hares on foot as a hobby. She fell messily in love with tempestuous people. She was ahead of her time, championing the reinvention of children’s books as books actually written for children. At the same time, she struggled with doubts about the importance of her work (a body of work so voluminous and highly-valued it is still being published decades after her passing). This story of Margaret’s life starts gently but the drama builds and it goes out with a (unfortunate) bang.

There’s a Mystery There: The Primal Vision of Maurice Sendak
by Jonathan Cott

Sendak‘s stories seamlessly unite a visceral wildness with familiar, domestic themes and imagery. They’re about children, food, school, dreams, fairy-tales, monsters, and the subconscious. In this examination of Sendak’s life and legacy, Cott shares his clear admiration for Maurice in a weaving together of intimate interviews from a variety of sources. Sendak had a difficult childhood, unusual career path, and a frank openness paired (somewhat perplexingly) with a fondness for cryptic symbolism and surrealism in his work. This book also dives deep into Sendak’s masterpiece, Outside Over There, a picture book which took him five years to finish.

You might also check out Making Mischief, a book with even more of Sendak’s art and information on the artists who influenced him.

The Real Wizard of Oz
by Rebecca Loncraine

Like her subject L. Frank Baum, Loncraine has the chops of a storyteller. Whether or not you’re especially enamored with the world of Oz or believe Baum was the J.K. Rowling of his time, Loncraine offers up a captivating banquet of some very interesting times in American history with stylish flair. Baum did not start writing for children (or even dream of the Oz series) until the latter part of his life, but the inspiration for many of the themes in his writing are evident all along the road of his earlier life. He lived in a period of incredible expansion, economic turmoil, war, disease, drought, suffrage, spiritualism, racism, and electricity. When he was a child, veterans were just coming come from the Civil War with metal prostheses, not unlike a certain fictional woodsman. Baum’s wife and mother-in-law were both fiery, brilliant, and progressive women, which likely inspired Baum to push the buttons of his publisher when he wrote progressive books for girls under the pen name Edith Van Dyne. In truth, Baum’s careers, opinions, and moods were even more varied than his many nom de plumes.

Oh, and did you know there was an Oz musical stage play that came out before the movie?

Patricia Polacco

Finally, I’d like to proffer the author Patricia Polacco. Hers is not as famous as some of the other names here, but when I started putting this post together, I knew I wanted to give her a special mention. I lamented the fact that there is no published biography on this fascinating woman or much formal analysis of her magical and moving stories. Then I remembered that Polacco has written a bit about herself, not in an official biography, but in her own books. The Junkyard Wonders, An A from Miss Keller, Thank you, Mr. Falker, and any books I may have missed that feature “Trisha” are all autobiographical. Each story provides a slice of Polacco’s early life, focusing on her struggles in school and discovery of her dyslexia. I think it’s safe to say there’s at least a bit of an author’s life in everything they write. Polacco is just a little more up front about it.

 

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Are there any authors from your formative years (or later) you’d like to read about but, for whatever reason, don’t have a biography out yet? I’d personally like to know more about Barbara Sleigh (creator of Carbonel, King of Cats), Mary Norton (she of The Borrowers and the Bed-knobs and Broomsticks), or Russell Hoban, best known for his Frances the Badger series and one very curious piece of post-apocalyptic fiction. Oh, and if you’re a Pippi Longstocking fan, there’s going to be a newly translated biography of Astrid Lindgren out at the end of this month.

 

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