Thursday, April 11, 2013


IT MAY BE HARD TO RECONCILE the idea of Sylvia Plath, the patron saint of suicide, the confessional chronicler of depression, with her children's books. That a woman who expressed so little happiness in all her other works had hidden away light, silly verses and stories is jarring. Perhaps that is why it was not until over a decade after her death that any of them appeared.

Written in 1959, but published in 1976, The Bed Book was the first of Plath's children's books to see print. Encouraged by Atlantic Monthly Press editor Emilie McLeod, Plath took the idea of fantastical beds, and composed an almost Seussian poem of imagination.

She wrote in her journal for May 3, 1959:
"I wrote a book yesterday. Maybe I'll write a postscript on top of this in the next month and say I've sold it. Yes, after half a year of procrastinating, bad feeling and paralysis, I got to it yesterday morning, having lines in my head here and there, and Wide-Awake Will and Stay-Uppity Sue very real, and bang. I chose ten beds out of the long list of too fancy and ingenious and abstract a list of beds, and once I'd begun I was away and didn't stop till I typed out and mailed it (8 double-spaced pages only!) to the Atlantic Press. The Bed Book, by Sylvia Plath. Funny how doing it freed me. It was a bat, a bad-conscience bat brooding in my head...A ready-made good idea and an editor writing to say she couldn't get the idea of it out of her head."
Emilie McLeod loved it, but she suggested removing the two children, Wide-Awake Will and Stay-Uppity Sue who had acted as a framing narrative. Plath rewrote the book within a week of receiving McLeod's edits, and was very optimistic that it would soon be accepted for publication. She dedicated it to her friend Marcia Plumer's adopted twins.

That Plath herself still had no children of her own (despite The New York Times's erroneous claim that The Bed Book had been written for Plath's children) was still a source of much anguish to the young poet. Her husband Ted Hughes had turned to writing children's books at the same time. (He went on to have a long successful career as a children's writer, a subject for a future We Too Were Children.) Writing in her journal of both his and her books, Plath mourned, "And no child, not even the beginnings or the hopes of one, to dedicate it to...My god. This is the one thing in the world I can't face. It is worse than a horrible disease."

Plath had to wait until the middle of August until she got back definitive word about the fate of her book. Little, Brown, then the publisher of Atlantic Monthly Press books, felt "that the book is not simple and basic enough, that some of the beds are too farfetched, and that it has more appeal to adults than to children." At the time, while Plath had published many poems and stories in magazines, she had not yet published a book, and so could not rely on her name to carry the book through. Emilie McLeod was genuinely sorrowful that she had to pass on the bad news.

THE BED BOOK THAT EVENTUALLY DID APPEAR deserves none of Little, Brown's criticisms. It begins:
Beds come in all sizes--
single or double,
cot-size or cradle,
king-size or trundle.

Most Beds are Beds
for sleeping or resting,
but the best Beds are much
more interesting!
Plath said in her journal that she had chosen ten beds, but in the final book there seem to be a few more than that. Of course, she may have intended some of these beds to be the same bed. They are: a bed for fishing, a bed for cats, a bed for acrobats, a submarine bed, a jet-propelled bed, a snack bed, a spottable bed, a tank bed, a bird-watchers bed, a pocket-size bed, an elephant bed, and a North-Pole bed.

The Bed Book was later included in Plath's Collected Children's Stories with different illustrations. In the original book, illustrator Emily Arnold McCully infuses her pictures with warmth, depicting a sort of nostalgic idyll.

But the later pictures by David Roberts come closer to the zaniness the book intends.

The collected version also retains additional verses that had been cut from the book's first appearance. Why those particular lines had been removed is unclear.

Jack Prelutsky included an excerpt from The Bed Book in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, but the book itself fell out of print. It would be twenty years more before another one of Plath's children's works was published

In addition to Plath's own published journals, background information for this post came from Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson, and Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexander.

COMING SOON: The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit by Sylvia Plath

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.


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