Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature, by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter Sieruta

“We’ve long wondered what causes so many adults—sophisticated, worldly, and even downright cynical adults—to get sloppy and sentimental at the mere mention of books for kids,” muse the authors of Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. “It seems that for many, the topic conjures up a lost world of gumdrops, rainbows, and fluffy little bunnies that love you forever and like you for always” (5-6).

It’s true. People always tell me that they love picture books, but don’t often comment on how intense, complex, and rich the genre is. Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter Sieruta have written an astonishing book that they “hope dispel[s] the romanticized image of children’s literature held by much of the public, of children’s authors writing dainty, instructive stories with a quill pen in hand and woodland creatures curled up at their feet” (7).

“Children are the eternal battleground upon which all wars are fought, all desires laced, and all hopes and dreams embodied” (14). This is as deep as truths get, but don’t expect the rest of the book to elaborate loftily on why Children Are The Future. The authors are “librarians and catalogers, bloggers and speakers, parents and scholars” (8), and they’re comedians to boot; there’s no shortage of gossip (for the greater good, of course) but also plenty of thoughtful opinions on what children need and deserve from their literature. They do focus quite a bit on the philosophies behind children’s literature, an endlessly important and fascinating field in its own right.

I loved the chapters and interludes that discussed the personal lives of famous LGBT authors. I had known that Maurice Sendak and Margaret Wise Brown were gay/bi, but had no idea that Arnold Lobel (of Frog and Toad fame) or James Marshall (Creator of the hippos George and Martha, named after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) were as well, or that they both died from AIDS-related illnesses. I didn’t know that the author Eloise was something of a theater queen, or that Wanda Gag (Millions of Cats) was kind of a perv. They also discuss censorship, of course, and root this in the subversive and revolutionary power of books for youth.

The authors also provide some fascinating and, at times, worrisome commentary on the state of children’s publishing today. For example, they note that “The digital age has also revealed the sometimes cozy relationship between children’s authors and critics…. So when a blogger gives a rave to an author’s latest book and we notice a photo of said author attending said blogger’s barbecue posted online, questions are raised” (224-255). There’s also a delightful takedown of celebrity-written picture books, pulling no punches with descriptions of Madonna’s “Lotsa de Casha” and Jay Leno’s If Roast Beef Could Fly. And, of course, there’s some discussion about Harry Potter, Twilight, and the next big things.

There are also lots of cute pictures of bunnies scattered throughout. You should definitely read this book for its brilliance and humor, but also for the bunnies. Who doesn’t love bunnies?

Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature, by Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter Sieruta. Candlewick, 2014. ISBN: 978-0763651503

Kyle Lukoff