Q&A with Jan Susina: Secrets and origins of famous children’s books
Illinois State English Professor Jan Susina is a world-renowned expert in children’s literature. Susina, who tweets at @alicentweetland, literally wrote the book on Lewis Carroll (The Place of Lewis Carroll in Children’s Literature) and spoke last fall at Cambridge University’s conference celebrating the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. In the following Q-and-A, Susina tells the stories behind some of the world’s most well-known children’s tales.
Some of the most famous children’s authors—Beatrix Potter (The Tale of Peter Rabbit), Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Moon), Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)—never had children. How did they find their inspiration?
Sometimes the people who we think are the least likely to become children’s writers are the very ones who become most successful.
Beatrix Potter is a good example. She believed that the success of The Tale of Peter Rabbit was because the story was “written for a real child, and not made to order.” I think that is one of the major methods of successful writing for children.
Potter began her story as a letter that she wrote and illustrated for a child of her former governess, Annie Moore. Her letter begins very much like the opening of her famous picture book that was published eight years later: “My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I will tell you a story about four little rabbits, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter.”
In contrast, Louisa May Alcott was contacted by a Boston editor, Thomas Niles, who asked her to try writing a book for young women after the success of Hospital Sketches, a book based on her experiences as a nurse during the Civil War. Alcott wasn’t keen on the idea at first. She wrote in her journal, “Mr. N wants a girls’ story, and I plod away on ‘Little Women.’ … Never liked little girls, or knew many, except my sisters.”
Unlike Peter Rabbit, Little Women was a children’s book that was written for the market rather than for a specific child, but it was also incredibly successful. I think Beatrix Potter is correct: Writing for a real child works. But for other children’s authors—such as Alcott—writing based on the memories of their own childhood can also be very effective.
Did other famous children’s books begin as stories told to children?
Lewis Carroll first told an impromptu oral story to Alice Liddell and her sisters during a boating trip. At Alice’s request, he wrote it down and illustrated it and named it Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. He later revised and expanded the story that became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
J.M. Barrie’s friendship with five Llewelyn Davies boys—George, John, Peter, Michael, and Nicholas—inspired him to write Peter Pan. Barrie played pirates with the boys and told them stories of Peter Pan’s adventures. He eventually became the legal guardian of the boys after the deaths of their parents. Later, he acknowledged that it was actually Michael (not Peter) who was the model for Peter Pan.
Not all children’s tales are about cuddly bears. In Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter mentions that Peter’s father was baked into a pie. Not exactly what we think as appropriate content for a child’s story.
That’s true. In fact, the first three editions of Peter Rabbit included an illustration of Mrs. McGregor serving Mr. McGregor the pie that had Peter’s father in it. Potter decided her illustration was too grotesque and had it removed from her picture book. What is really interesting is that Potter used herself as the model for Mrs. McGregor. Potter was not a sentimental children’s writer.
Potter once said, “Although nature is not consciously wicked, it is always ruthless.” Peter Rabbit is a survival story, not a cute bunny story. Peter’s mother warns him not to go into Mr. McGregor’s garden, but he disobeys her, and nearly loses his life. Potter’s picture books are really dog-eat-dog stories (or farmer-eats-rabbit stories, in this case). As adults we often romanticize children’s books, but the world of Beatrix Potter is a bit more rough-and-tumble than we might remember.
Is it true that Sally in Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat was a poke at the old Dick and Jane books?
Absolutely. The origins of The Cat in the Hat are fascinating.
John Hersey, the author of the influential nonfiction book Hiroshima, wrote an article in 1954 for Life magazine discussing the reasons children were struggling with reading. Even then people complained about that. Hersey argued it was the fault of dull textbooks used in school, such as the once popular Scott Foresman Dick and Jane and Sally basal reader series. Hersey said children needed better books that “widen rather than narrow the associate richness children give to the words they illustrate.”
Hersey named Dr. Seuss in his article as one of the few illustrators who could create imaginative illustrations for textbooks that were used to teach reading. While Seuss didn’t read Hersey’s article, his editor did and challenged him to create an entertaining basal reader.
The Cat in the Hat was created as a controlled vocabulary book for third-grade classrooms. The publisher soon realized that parents were buying the book and having their kids read it at home. The trade edition of The Cat in Hat became far more successful than the textbook edition. With its clever use of rhyme and comic illustrations, many readers don’t realize The Cat in the Hat was created as a textbook intended to help children learn how to read. That is the secret origins of The Cat in the Hat, the book that helped to make Dr. Seuss … well, the famous Dr. Seuss.
What is the greatest secret in children’s literature?
For me, that would have to be the treasure that is associated with Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Stevenson was a Scottish writer who fell in love with Fanny Osbourne, an American woman he met in Europe. She had a son, Lloyd Osbourne, from her previous marriage. He accompanied them back to California.
It is actually the California coast around Monterey, and not the Caribbean, that is the location of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. To entertain his 12-year-old stepson on a rainy day, Stevenson began drawing a map. Delighted with the map, Stevenson’s father and stepson began to suggest place names and characters to accompany the map. The story of Treasure Island grew out of Stevenson’s map. If you have ever read Treasure Island, the search for the map and how the map leads to the buried treasure motivates all the characters. The map becomes the central metaphor of the novel.
Stevenson first published his story serially in the American magazine called Young Folks, where it was originally titled “The Sea Cook” (the nickname of Long John Silver). When Stevenson submitted the story to the magazine, he also sent his drawing of the map. Somehow the map was lost or misplaced, and Stevenson was forced to redraw it.
He always felt the second version lacked the power of his original map. I believe the original map for Treasure Island still exists hidden somewhere. I would love to discover Stevenson’s hand-drawn map of Treasure Island. I think that would be a real treasure of children’s literature.