It is a good thing that the lives of children’s authors are not always reflected in the books they wrote. Some of the most enduring and well-loved of these books were written by people whose lives were not sugar and spice. Quite a few of the authors were sad, troubled, depressed, filled with self-doubt, veterans from wars, who possibly suffered from PTSD, C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and A. A. Milne all fought in World War I, quite a few were eccentrics, several did not even like children, but there were others whose books grew out of stories they told to their own children. The creative act is a mystery, and the treasures these writers left us are the result of their imaginative and expressive powers. We suggest these biographies are for adults only. If you do not want your illusions shattered, then proceed with caution before reading about the lives of some very talented people.
They Created Books That Children Love
Pippi Longstocking is one of those indelible fictional characters who was created by Astrid Lindgren, a country girl who moved to the big city. She overcame the stigma of being a single mother, financial hardship, depression, the terrors of World War II, and eventually became a leader in modern Swedish children’s literature.
In her day, Beatrix Potter was expected to marry and be a good wife, but she had other notions about all of that. Her family attempted to block her from publishing books, and tried to arrange a suitable marriage. Overcoming family pressure, she published the first of many books that continue to delight children all over the world. The best known is The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Edward Gorey’s illustrations are mysterious, humorous and sometimes very scary. He wrote several books for children, but illustrated more books, for children and adults, that were written by other writers. Perhaps some of those finely drawn pen-and-ink illustrations offer clues to the real Edward Gorey.
Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, and A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss are just two books among many that this husband and wife team wrote and illustrated. This thoroughly researched dual biography is about their lives, and also references the work of other artists and writers of that time period.
From 1940 - 1973, when she was in charge of editing children’s books at HarperCollins, Ursula Nordstrom influenced modern children’s literature in a major way. She had the insight to recognize and mentor the talent of writers who would create enduring children’s books that still delight all of us today.
Little Golden books were a unique concept in publishing. Many children have fond memories of seeing these books shelved near magazines in grocery stores. They were high-quality, affordable children’s books that were innovative in concept, marketing and in publishing the burgeoning careers of many authors.
Goodnight Moon is a beloved and gentle picture book that many parents have read to their children at bedtime. Its creator was anything but gentle. She was a woman who lived life on her own terms—what a character and what a life!
Kay Thompson seemed to know just about everybody there was to know from the 1930s on until her death in 1998. She was an actress, singer, coach, writer, cabaret performer, first-class eccentric, godmother to Liza Minnelli and the creator of the stories about Eloise, the precocious wild-child who lived at The Plaza in New York City.
Betty MacDonald was a survivor who lived through the Great Depression, tuberculosis, lawsuits and cancer. One of her books, The Egg and I, was made into a popular 1940s film. It later came under attack for stereotyping Native Americans, and the residents of Washington state as country bumpkins. The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series was updated for the 60th anniversary of publication.
The movie Saving Mr. Banks revealed some of the eccentricities of P. L. Travers, the creator of the Mary Poppins books. She was an Australian whose early childhood was marred by the death of her alcoholic father, from which she never rebounded. As an adult, she was both vulnerable and manipulative in her professional and personal life, often involved with men who were substitute father figures.
E.B. White battled depression and anxiety all his life. As a child he was painfully shy and found comfort and friendship with the animals on the family farm where he grew up. They would be the inspiration for his widely read and admired book, Charlotte’s Web. Michael Sims documents White’s long, arduous creation of the novel.
Maurice Sendak’s childhood was not happy. There were health problems that confined him to bed, and family life was overshadowed by relatives who had died during the Holocaust. His innovative ideas made him the most important illustrator/writer in the modern picture book era, but not without controversy. Where the Wild Things Are is loved by children, but adults worried that the large monsters were too scary. The picture book, In the Night Kitchen, published in 1970, has been ranked 25th on the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000" list compiled by the American Library Association.