Monday, October 21, 2013

Interesting Characters

I think there's a certain personality mold that it's assumed that the writers of children's books just fall into. I think people expect us to be warm, fuzzy, wholesome, normal human beings. But a bit of Googling reveals that that's not necessarily the case. Many of the individuals that I would consider to be the greatest in the history of the genre have been, shall we say, "a bit more of the fringe" than one would expect from their writing. So here are some things you might not know about your favorite children's book authors:

  • In my browsing through author biographies, I was surprised how many of them were professional pilots at some point in their lives. Roal Dahl was a decorated fighter pilot in WWI who occasionally acted as a spy. He collaborated with fellow intelligence officer Ian Flemming on his book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to create the create the character of The Child Catcher, one of the most terrifying villains in children's literature. Flemming would then go on to create James Bond, inspired by his days in British Intelligence. Other pilots include Antoine de Saint-Exupery, (The Little Prince) who flew mail delivery before turning fighter pilot for WWII. He disappeared while flying a mission over Greece. T.H White, author of The Once and Future King, also took up flying briefly in an attempt to cure his fear of heights.

  • Many writers and illustrators, much to their own chagrin, have to hold day jobs. L. Frank Baum, creator of the immortal Wizard of Oz, did nearly everything, trying his hand at raising exotic chickens, selling fireworks, and becoming an actor, traveling salesman and failed newspaper man.

  • J.M Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, lost his older brother David in an ice skating accident. Despite having 7 other children, their mother Margaret went into a deep depression over the loss of her favorite son. James donned his brother's clothes and went into cheer her up. She responded to him, and he spent much of his own childhood pretending to be David. The notion of a boy preserved in memory, never to grow to adult hood, provided the catalyst for the creation of Peter and the immortal NeverLand.

  • Edward Gorey was asexual. Evidence from correspondence suggests that Hans Christian Anderson, the very founder of children's literature was bi-sexual. Despite growing up in a traditional Jewish household, Maurice Sendak claimed not only to be an atheist but came out as gay after the death of his partner in 2007. But I think my favorite surprise of the bunch was P.L Travers, born Helen Goff, and author of the Mary Poppins books. Travers had affairs with both men and women, but to me that wasn't the most interesting thing about her. At the age of 40, she adopted a son named Camillus from Ireland, who was one of twins. She did so under the advice of her astrologer, and refused to adopt his twin brother. The boy did not find out he had a twin brother until he was 17 and the young man turned up on his doorstep.

  • I was actually disappointed to look up Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snickett, to find that he seems to have channeled all his would-be life drama into his alter ego. The most interesting thing he did before his writing career took off was to be a working musician, playing accordion in a couple of bands in college. 

But there you are. Just goes to show you can't judge a book by it's cover, an author by their books, or anything by what you read in a sensationalist Victorian newspaper.

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