What’s It All About?

WE TOO WERE CHILDREN, MR. BARRIE is a blog about children’s books written by “adult” authors.

After years of finding children’s books tucked away in authors’ bibliographies (Graham Greene wrote children’s books!), followed by quick disappointment (how can they be out of print?), I realized that I was having this same frustrating revelation over and over. And when I would bring these discoveries up with my friends, they would have the same reaction (John Updike wrote children’s books! How can they be out of print?) The goal of this blog is to make more widely known these much-coveted literary rarities (and perhaps stir up enough interest to bring them back into print).

What to Expect

My goal at the outset is to concentrate on one author a week. If an author wrote only one children’s book, then there might only be one post that week. If an author wrote more picture books, then more posts can be expected.

I also intend to take the opportunity to highlight forgotten or little known artists who served as illustrators for these books. I will try to keep those digressions appropriately short—the online equivalent of a sidebar—but often there is such a wealth of beautiful artwork that it pains me to not include it all. In those cases, I will make a Flickr set and link to it from the blog.  If you would prefer to see more of that art on the blog or more in depth discussions of some of the other creators involved in these projects, please let me know.

On much less frequent occasions, there will be posts headed I Won’t Grow Up, which will look at the adult work of “chldren’s” authors.

The Criteria

So then, what is a children’s story? This question is at the center of an ongoing, never to be concluded, debate on how to define “children’s literature.” Is it literature written for children or literature read by children? After all, “Many adults read and enjoy children’s books,” Isaac Bashevis Singer reminds us in “Are Children the Ultimate Literary Critics?” Or as C.S. Lewis says, “I need not remind such an audience as this that the neat sorting-out of books into age-groups, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers.” So again, what’s a book for children? What’s an “adult” author?

In doing my research, I’ve tried to keep very narrow guidelines for inclusion. The book must be (1) out-of-print, (2) written in the twentieth century, (3) by an author of international stature, (4) who is not considered a children’s writer, (5) expressly for children, and (6) likely to be completely unknown by even serious readers.

I will start with out-of-print books, since they are the least likely to be known. Some of these books go for hundreds of dollars on the used market, and are not even on hand in most public libraries. If an author has a children’s book (or books) out-of-print and a children’s book (or books) in print, I will write about all of those books at the same time. When out-of-print books have been exhausted, if there is continued interest, I may choose to extend the criteria to include in print books as well.

But why just the twentieth century? What about Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales or Wallstonecraft’s Original Stories From Real Life? As Singer and Lewis note above, children and adults both read children’s literature. This was true from its infancy in fables, folktales, and religious stories, through the Victorian age of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island. But with the rise of modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century, and its celebrated emphasis on linguistic experimentation, esoteric allusion, convoluted narratives, and open discussion of sex, the divide between adult literature and children’s literature grew. Furthered by marketing and by educators, children’s literature was in many ways removed from the body of literature as a whole. It is only at the end of the twentieth century that we see the boundaries around children’s literature compromised and the crossover readership in both directions has once again become common. So the books posted on We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie, written by many of the practitioners of high literature at a time when the division was still strong, hold a unique interest.

As for the corollary to the question what is children’s literature—What is an “adult” author?—I asked, would the average American reader think of the writer in question as a children’s author? (I say American, because Ted Hughes, for example, wrote many children’s books that were popular in the UK, but were either never released or never widely read in the US, where he is viewed primarily as a serious adult poet. Incidentally, his children’s poetry was recently collected here.) As for what the “average” American would think, I went with my gut. (Everyone knows Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but how many people realize it was written by the creator of James Bond? Many people grew up on James Thurber’s children’s books, but would you say he was a children’s author?)

And finally, I defined “children’s book” as a work the writer intended for children (often specific children), because there are many great authors who have had a story adapted by an artist into a picture book but that’s not really a children’s book by the author so much as an accidental (or incidental) children’s book using the author’s text.

The Title: We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie

Do you remember a time when there was no author? As children, books exist readymade with no sense that the author is another human being who has created this work. “It never occurred to us,” writes Virginia Woolf, “that there was such a person as Defoe, and to have been told that Robinson Crusoe was the work of a man with a pen in his hand would either have disturbed us unpleasantly or meant nothing at all.” Some are fortunate enough to persist in this magical belief, maintaining the mystery of the book. But for most of us, as our friends (or as we ourselves) become authors, this illusion is broken, and the author is cut down to the size of a person.

So all the sweeter the surprise when, perusing our childhood shelves intact in parents’ homes, or shopping for a gift, or best of all, sharing books with our children, that we can say, “What?  James Thurber wrote Many Moons? Donald Hall wrote the Ox-cart Man? (Or in reverse.  “William Steig was a cartoonist for the New Yorker!  Shel Silverstein worked for Playboy!”) These connections between our childhoods and the adults we have become give us the satisfaction that we have always had good taste, even as children. Or the reassurance that we know what we like and always have. It is a special kind of nostalgia. The nostalgia of self-satisfaction.

It’s a nostalgia these authors often share. I image them, in one collective voice, addressing J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, a man lauded for his ability to capture childhood, “We too were children, Mr. Barrie.” With these books they stake out their own claim to Neverland.

UPDATE: See the Updated Introduction in which I revise the above goal of one author a week to an author whenever I can get to it.