The first book I remember reading all by myself I have here on my desk now. It’s called Tinker and Tanker Out West and it’s weathered and beaten, like the literary equivalent of the Velveteen Rabbit. The “Tinker” in the tale is in fact a rabbit, while “Tanker” is a hippo. (T&T were series characters developed and illustrated by Richard Scarry, perhaps not the best surname for a children’s author).

A quick glance at Amazon indicates the latest printing of the book was 1979. I recently showed my crumbling copy to a current kid’s editor in New York to see what the opinion would be about it now.

“It’s dated. It wouldn’t get published today. You’ve got Native American characters called Indians, and they’re shown as buffalo.”

“Yes,” I said. “But all the characters are animals. And the tribes of the western plains had a strong totemic relationship with the American Bison. What better animal choice could there be? Plus, think of The Lion King…think of all the TV shows and movies…think of…think of…”

I got nowhere. And this scenario was repeated with four other people in the “children’s book field.” No one came within a brushstroke of commenting on what should have been, given the picture book medium, the most salient feature–the illustrative style. This surprised me deeply. Cogent grounds for criticism do exist on that basis and I had this reinforced by several visual artists, who confirmed at least to my satisfaction, that there is something “nostalgic” about the style, independent of my memory and the personal associations I bring to it.

This impression is enhanced in the matter of the book as artifact–the printing process and the quality of the binding. My copy is a Doubleday book published in 1961. In addition to the black and white line drawings, there’s a richness of color saturation in the feature pages that’s reminiscent of pre-War publishing, in particular the output of the Whitman Publishing Company, who were big in the children’s book field, and important in my family history because they employed my grandfather and grandmother as illustrators (who in turn used as models my father and my aunt).

But the use of the word “Indians” and showing them as buffalo–when you’ve got bad guys in the form of the Crocodile Kid, Bob Cat and Blackie Wolf? That’s a problem? Hmm. There’s a problem all right, but that ain’t it.

The Inappropriate is What We Often Love the Most

Many writers I admire have commented on the surrealist delights to be found in the works of L. Frank Baum, especially the Oz stories, and especially the tales outside the most famous book in that series. There’s a lot of very odd stuff going on if you haven’t had the pleasure or haven’t looked at them in a while. And quite a few people haven’t it turns out–and guess in which field many of them work?

Not long ago I happened to find one of the more obscure Oz books as a downloadable file, so I downloaded it and changed precisely 10 key words on a pattern basis and then submitted the manuscript commercially under a made up name over the transom. The letters that came back speak volumes. The unmistakable context and style went completely unrecognized given the very minor and discrete word substitutions. The work was deemed “imaginative” but also “inappropriate” for child readers. Really? And yet that same story with 10 words changed throughout, included in a reissued Baum compendium, is selling very well–right now.

I never mean to berate anyone involved in the complex process of bringing ideas and words to life-whatever part of the process they’re involved in. I would never seek to identify and embarrass those hoodwinked editors or their publishers. But it’s worth pointing out that editors act as first rank censors whether they acknowledge it or not. In the case of children’s editors, this responsibility seems exponentially significant.

In other media appealing to children, such as films, games and toys, there’s an almost manic tendency in the other direction–to too directly market research child opinions and then engineer “products” to meet those needs. There are problems with this approach to be sure, but in the case of children’s literature, in many instances kids literally don’t know what they’re missing because the decision has been made for them–often on the basis of a very dubious adult agenda, which isn’t disclosed or very well articulated. When we look at levels of literacy, book sales and the quality of participation in print media culture amongst our young, we need to bear this in mind.

Of course having said all this, there are certainly children’s book which have fallen by the wayside that are better left there–but can be enjoyed or gawked at by curious adults and especially writers. One I particularly recommend for twistedness is called Johnny Mouse and the Wishing Stick, written and illustrated in 1922 by Johnny Gruelle (1880-1938), the creator of the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy stories.

At this distance in time, it’s perhaps difficult to appreciate the intense commercial success the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories achieved-and of course, their namesake dolls. Taken together they are truly one of the major landmarks in the history of marketing-to-children. For anyone who believes the merchandising of spin-offs of entertainment products for children started in the 1950’s and 60’s, this is just another example of how in error that belief is. Highly sophisticated and phenomenally effective marketing concepts were in play prior to World War I and escalated throughout the Depression. Many of our conventional notions about prosperity, the image and role of children in society, and both the innovation and greed on the part of marketers all need to be reevaluated as a result.

There are several fascinating legends and speculations surrounding the invention of the dolls. Some attribute the inspiration for Raggedy Ann to Gruelle’s daughter, Marcella, who sadly died following a school vaccination for small pox-and here is where things get potentially very interesting.

Embittered by the death of his young daughter, Gruelle couldn’t accept the official cause of death as a heart defect. He became a strident national proponent of the Anti-Vaccination movement. As a consequence, there’s a line of debate in the history of dolls and children’s literature that argues that Raggedy Ann became a symbol of this movement. How explicit and manipulated a tactic this was remains controversial. Nevertheless, the fact is that although the stories definitely do seem rather hokey and lost in time today, the images of Raggedy Ann and Andy remain iconic–recognized at a glance and named by many people with no knowledge of the stories-without this other alleged propaganda subtext being known at all. Consciously contrived, or simply associated with her creator’s personal beliefs, Raggedy Ann was a highly successful literary creation and a mass-produced doll that was also understood at the time to be a symbol of a social, political, scientific and moral agenda that remains active and still very controversial today.

The Moral Evolution of the Woozgoozle

However explicit the politicization of Raggedy Ann was or is thought to be, any such subtext is entirely absent in the Johnny Mouse opus–replaced instead by a very distinctive psychology, reminiscent of the seminal clay animator Art Clokey’s creation of Gumby (and his pony pal Pokie too)-only presented in a completely naïve fashion. (Clokey’s self-conscious involvement with psychotherapy and the search for religious meaning led him from the Episcopalian Church to a deep involvement with the Eastern religions and a profound personal association with a guru. Highly recommended is the Gumby box set available from Rhino, a staggeringly entertaining and elliptical journey, featuring both groundbreaking stop motion animation and some marvelous absurdity, sincerity and vision on the larger issue of spirituality and the “evolution of consciousness.”)

But Johnny Mouse and Co. aren’t involved in anything even vaguely resembling a spiritual quest. Whether it’s the blatantly phallic “wishing stick” of the title, which young Johnny clutches with two hands on the cover and a very disturbing rodent glint in the eye, or the “wishing clock” that you put your hand in to find what you want, there is some engaging fun of a decidedly different kind to puzzle and chuckle over. Not the least of which is the increasing reliance upon the various magic implements, which have a pronounced effect on the work ethic of the characters in question. They soon don’t have any at all. In Johnny Mouse’s world all you have to do is wish for something. So, there’s plenty of time for other things–like eating. (I challenge anyone to find an example in children’s literature–or any literature–where the debauchery of eating is given more page time and more positive presentation.) “I have invited a great many friends over to my house for a strawberry short-cake dinner…”

“When the cakes are baked we will have some, so we might as well eat some ice-cream first to give us a good appetite.”

“Johnny Mouse ate sixteen pancakes and nine sausages. The Woozgoozle ate sixteen pancakes and nine sausages. Gran’ma and Gran’pa Mouse, of course, ate more than that, because they were bigger.”

And bigger is what everybody gets. Buttons are always popping–chins mopped of grease. The stories form an orgy of gluttony where satisfaction and happiness are synonymous with the massive overindulgence in the sweetest and highest fat content food you can imagine. Cream puffs, lollipops, ice cream sodas, ladyfingers, chocolate éclairs, taffy, pies, cakes and pancakes–there are pancakes piling up everywhere, flapping and rolling around like hubcaps.

In a key scene, Johnny and his friend the Woozgoozle torment Billy Bear by trapping him in a mire of candy and stuffing their faces in front of him with his own ice cream and honeycakes. And have I mentioned the Magic Soda Fountain? Or all the sticky molasses and syrups–the whipped cream-a-nd the pancakes. My God, there are pancakes everywhere!

At the beginning, Johnny lives a quiet well-fed life with his grandparents in a little cigar box (which gets tighter). Things get moving when they go on a picnic (everything significant happens around eating). Here they meet a creature called the Woozgoozle, a fantastic monster with a sort of sombrero for a head (how he eats is unclear), who is forever raiding Chicky Town and swiping up young chickens in his sack to devour in his cave. Until Johnny and family get him hooked on sugared doughnuts instead.

From a political correctness point of view, some Animal Rights people and vegetarians might applaud the foregoing of the chickens–but how would they feel about all the jelly, cream and goo that forms the new diet? And the pancakes. Have I mentioned all the pancakes?

What is even more perplexing is that after this rehabilitation from eating chickens in favor of cakes and soda, which connects to the discovery of the first of the magic aids, the rest of the stories demonstrate a subtle but relentless sub-motif whereby any activity that requires work or effort is undermined in favor of the use of the unexplained magic that delivers whatever is wanted–which is of course more food. The characters are always complaining about being hungry, and there is always room for more. “Let’s see if we can each drink another three sodas.” And to return to the inciting incident of the picnic, here are the contents of the basket that was to form their meal: “sixteen doughnuts, nine cream puffs and a lemon pie.” (The amount of food is always precisely quantified, with the exception of some of the pancake mentions, in which case there are sometimes simply too many to count.)

To be sure there are many strange and colorful creatures with funny sounding names, like the Snicklefritz, the Whangdoodles and Old Whixwangle–but there is one hell of a lot of eating, where all the meals are based around sweet treats–and it’s telling that when Johnny gets caught by some three-legged green things with fuzzy faces called a Whazzis (not sure of what the plural is), the dire torture they have in store for him is to pull their children’s wagon. The simplicity is breathtaking. Anything requiring effort–work–is bad. Happiness is eating and eating until you can’t eat anymore. Then eating more.

It’s amazing to read a successful and much loved book of its day, by a major author in the field at the time, display such a forceful and indeed gleeful embrace of what is often just plain perverse, and is certainly based on some highly suspect ideas of pleasure and satisfaction.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t some truly magical moments. My favorite story is “The Pirate and the Golden Pennies,” in which Johnny and the Woozgoozle stumble on a house that is larger on the inside than the outside (a theme worthy of Carroll, Kafka and Borges). Consider this exchange:

“Dear me,” laughed the Woozgoozle, “here we are, lost in a one-room house!”

“One room on the outside but no telling how many on the inside,” replied Johnny Mouse.

“The closer we come to the front door, the farther we get away from it!” laughed the Woozgoozle. “We went through twenty rooms away from the door and we’ve come back through twenty-five! Now the question is–if we go back through five rooms will we be nearer the door?”

Mark Danielewski, the author of House of Leaves would love it. That the one-legged pirate they eventually meet in the house has an old woman trapped as his slave (to cook him pancakes of course!) is a slight letdown–but there’s definitely something enjoyably bent about this one.

Indeed all the stories are enjoyably bent. I wouldn’t say they were “appropriate” for children at all, unless you’re a very big fan of morbid obesity. I don’t just say this in regards to now–I query their appropriateness, period. In 1927 or 2010.

To my surprise, however, when I asked my children’s experts for comment on the Pirate story (which begins with a pancake and sausage feeding frenzy) their focus was completely on the “overly intellectual and somewhat obscure nature of the Pirate’s house,” and a general systemic sense of “quaintness.” The enslavement of the Old Woman, who is literally paralyzed in a chair, went without comment. Two other stories did get a rise about the food–but along the lines of the kind of food consumed: lollipops, cream puffs, etc. It was more a matter of topicality and contemporary reference for my panel. “Kids don’t eat that sort of stuff now.” (When I simply substituted Happy Meals for pancakes, there was all manner of commotion.) Yet, things went silent when I pointed out that one of the distinguishing features and a widely acknowledged factor in the popularity of the Harry Potter books is the nostalgic Old English Private School milieu, however tripped up with owls and beards it may be.

My summary point is that it’s a part of the natural selection process of popular culture for some, even once very widely read, books to get lost. The list in this regard is long and this may be the fate of the Harry Potter series in time–who knows? Some books, for a range of reasons, deserve to be resigned to history. Ray Bradbury made this case in the still vivid Fahrenheit 451.

Helen Bannerman’s enormously popular The Story of Little Black Sambo first published in 1899 is an excellent example, for obvious racial reasons and the more fundamental quality of story issues, WHICH NEVER GET MENTIONED. (On a side note, it should be recalled that people in this story also consume ridiculous amounts of pancakes–and the defunct Sambo’s restaurant chain gives this another marketing related resonance.)

But let’s be mindful of the reasons and who’s making these decisions. And let’s be wary when anyone uses politically and morally charged words to bolster their verdicts. They may be entirely justified or justifiable. They should also be clearly articulated, and make reasonable discernments between genuine issues of content and message–of imagery and visual communication.

At the same time, it’s also important to revisit and rediscover those aspects of successful characters and marketing initiatives from the past that derived meaning through a now-overlooked propaganda agenda. And it’s critical for all of us who consider ourselves as intelligent and have the benefit of some education to do our due diligence and be more demanding of ourselves and those “representatives of culture,” who often make what end up becoming unexpectedly influential decisions. It’s not just smart-ass quiz show bravado to point out that that the Coca-Cola lettering, Spencerian script, named for Platt Rogers Spencer, was made into the penmanship standard across all American schools. That’s not just a fun fact, that’s history–and in part your history.

Finally, it’s time to stop being so anal about literature for children–and for adults–when so many liberties are taken in other media. Look at the stupendous outrageousness of South Park. In the print medium, political correctness gets forked at us and into us constantly, too often by people who don’t understand their own agenda well enough to prosecute it openly.

As part of the food and eating related issues with my panel, the matter of The Simpsons came up… “Hmm. Doughnuts.”

I was informed, as if I didn’t know, that the now-historic endurance of The Simpsons has “everything to do with political incorrectness.”

Duh. Everyone’s now quite happy to publish print spin-offs of the show…but would they have been game to introduce it as a children’s book, if that was how it originally had been introduced?

Do we really wonder why we have a problem with the love of reading amongst children today?

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KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is a writer, painter and musical producer. He is the author of the international cult novels Zanesville and Private Midnight. Random House is bringing out his third novel in the USA in March 2011, and a new book called Reverend America has just been completed and is already being sold in Europe. A Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, he has won First Prize in the Boston Review and River Styx Short Fiction Contests, and received the Fiction Collective 2 Award for Innovative Writing, in addition to publishing in a wide range of places such as Playboy, Nerve.com, Opium Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner and ZYZZYVA, amongst many others. You can find more about him on his Facebook Page.

16 responses to “Bless the Beasts and the Children’s Book Editors—with Imagination”

  1. dwoz says:

    As a parent, I found any and all Richard Scarry books to be utterly banal and uninteresting…as did the kids.

    Perhaps that’s part of the task of growing up…finding a Richard Scarry book and by doing so learn that there’s a REASON some books spend their lives on shelves.

    I’d add one other worthy mention: Wilbert V Awdry, author of the “Thomas the Tank Engine” books. The original books displayed an absolutely blatant racism and classism, and the lessons were that it was a GOOD thing to shun the “lesser” engines. That aspect of things is vastly diminished in the television series based on the books.

  2. Kris Saknussemm says:

    I love the comment about shunning the lesser engines.

  3. Phil Abrams says:

    So much to chew on. Where’s the syrup? I think that’s the question that the dullards ask all the time!

  4. Seb Doubinsky says:

    “No one is innocent.” Parents least of all.

  5. Tim Buck says:

    I enjoyed every paragraph and picture!

  6. Clarissa Dalloway says:

    Interesting post! I work as a literary agent for Norwegian children’s books, selling foreign rights. In Norway the state buys 1000 or even 1500 copies of the initial print run of books published, and distribute these copies to the public libraries. Thus the Norwegian publishers can afford issuing quite artistic, non-commercial books. Our picture books are much sought-after internationally, but meeting foreign publishers is also a very interesting reminder of how culturally different we sometime are when dealing with censorship and artistic expression in children’s literature.

    What is judged as suitable/sellable illustrations when it comes to style, is often intuitive. Few publishers can give you a detailed reason why a certain style won’t work in their market. When presenting Norwegian picture books to foreign publishers, I am often told that our picture books are simply too dark. Too scary. Too minimalistic. Norwegian picture books are a lot more marked by the climate they have been created under than even I was aware of. It is a geographical thing, but on a subtle level, and with cultural implications. But the experience of illustrations change constantly. For example, 4-5 years ago I found it a lot harder to sell artistic picture books to the German market than I do now. It may be a matter of being gradually accustomed to seeing artwork which is not mainstream. A lot of the time I think grown-ups underestimate children and their ability to enjoy foreign (in all meanings of that word) expressions.

    Norway is a very liberal country. We still have taboos, but they are few and far between. Many of our artistic children’s books deal with so-called difficult subjects. The American children’s book market is in my opinion one of the world’s most conservative markets. Among the things I enjoy the most about my job is discovering all the weird ideas grown-ups have when considering what to read for their children. A picture book illustrator I represent has won several international awards for his books. An American publisher bought the rights for these. But one of the books in the series became a problem to this publisher. Two seven-year-olds, a boy and a girl, are skinny-dipping. No genitals are shown, it is just subtly shown that they are naked. And then they sit on the shore, the girl drawing something with her finger on the boy’s back, so that he must guess what she is drawing. Only their torsos show. And then they kiss. The illustrations are gorgeous, a very innocent story about early love and friendship. Nothing vulgar about them. The American publisher couldn’t buy the rights for this book unless the illustrator put a visible trunk on the boy and a tank top on the girl. The “sexual innuendo” was just too obvious to the major customers of the books in this series; the American libraries and schools (often financially supported by religious establishments). I doubt whether children would read any sexual innuendo into these books. Only grown-ups think that way. No other foreign publisher I have shown these books to has brought this nudity issue up as a problem. The American publisher referred to here is not the only American publisher who has modified illustrations in our books. I suspect the nudity issue is quite general in American children’s book publishing.

    I have many more examples of weird taboos in children’s literature. Russian publishers won’t buy children’s books with death as the subject, the booksellers will boycott such books. Japanese publishers will ask you to add a finger to the four-fingered, non-realistic creatures in your book, as four fingers is a symbol of the Japanese mafia. Indians can’t handle pigs, rats, mice or cows in their picture books, as these animals are dirty, symbol of pest and holy. Etc.

    All this is strange when you consider what is accepted in other media targeted at children.

  7. Helen Gocher says:

    I worked in the children’s educational publishing world for almost 10 years, and oh the stories I could tell! We used to conduct what was unofficially called “the flip test”. A reader (usually an editor) would flip through almost every page of the book and take a very quick glance at the images of children on the pages. What was he/she looking for? A racial breakdown roughly equal to 35% white, 25% black, 20% Hispanic, 10% Asian, and 10% Other. This test was especially infuriating (a.k.a. insulting) to one of our executive editors who, as a “white-looking” Cuban-born woman, was “not Hispanic enough”.

    Your article made some great points. So, my 6-old-daughter should have a slutty looking Bratz doll but I can’t read her The Wizard of Oz? It’s asinine.

  8. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Thanks Clarissa and Helen. Very interesting. There’s so much more to be said on this topic. Children seem to be at or on the faultline of so many issues that culture is fixated on (or paralyzed by) today. I appreciate your comments.

  9. Patricia Brinkmann says:

    Great read and illustrations as someone who likes South Park, Family Guy, and Space Ghost coast to coast…but what would you call this a blog teen/adult book?


    since it is on the internet and am totally in love with.

    It is like an adult book with childrens book pictures.

    I think this blog/book/comic could pass muster with pre teen to adult but for children? but at the same time I really think children would love this in an odd geeky way.


  10. Kris Saknussemm says:

    That’s cool, Patricia.

  11. Linda Chromick says:

    Great post Kris. I have a collection of antique kid’s books, mostly nursery rhymes and some stories. Mostly politically incorrect, with titles like “The Rag Man.” We read all the Raggedy Ann and Andy adventures aloud and if there was a subliminal political message to them it escaped me. I hope kids’ books don’t become soddened with “important” adult messages. Nonsense must veer everywhere — its dangers and wonders must have free reign to zig zag through a child’s imagination and set it free. The Raggedy Ann dolls have an imprinted heart shape on the chest (or used to). I cut around it on my doll and stuffed a real candy heart inside, then sewed the cloth heart shape back on, like they did in one of the stories. Of course the heart melted inside the stuffing and made my doll all sticky, but I treasured her all the more for it, knowing she had a “real” heart, and this knowingness led to many other imaginings, speculations and realms of possibilities. Thank God no adult was around to stop me.

  12. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Nonsense must veer everywhere! What a wonderful phrase.

  13. murugesh says:

    Great read and illustrations as someone who likes South Park, Family Guy, and Space Ghost coast to coast…but what would you call this a blog teen/adult book?

  14. Kris Saknussemm says:

    It’s about what we allow younger people to read and experience and what kind of controls are put in place. Some are good and appropriate. Some aren’t. The capacity to misjudge is ever present.

  15. Marketingkonzept…

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  16. Kristen Bancroft says:

    I have to disagree with you about Johnny Mouse. I love the stories and I think children should be able to read them. Children love the idea of being able to eat huge piles of doughnuts and drink from a magic soda water fountain. Parents can talk to them about the difference between fantasy and reality. You can point out that Johnny Mouse and his friend spend their days running around outside.

    I’ve put up a copy of the book on Amazon Kindle under the title “Adventures of Johnny Mouse,” so anyone who wants to can read it and think about it.

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