Yesterday’s New York Times has a good piece about the contribution “contrarian children’s authors,” Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, and Shel Silverstein, have made to children’s lit. (They each have a new book out this fall.)
Once upon a more staid time, the purpose of children’s books was to model good behavior. They were meant to edify and to encourage young readers to be what parents wanted them to be, and the children in their pages were well behaved, properly attired and devoid of tears. Children’s literature was not supposed to shine a light on the way children actually were, or delight in the slovenly, self-interested and disobedient side of their natures.
Seuss, Sendak and Silverstein ignored these rules. They brought a shock of subversion to the genre — defying the notion that children’s books shouldn’t be scary, silly or sophisticated. Rather than reprimand the wayward listener, their books encouraged bad (or perhaps just human) behavior. Not surprisingly, Silverstein and Sendak shared the same longtime editor, Ursula Nordstrom of Harper & Row, a woman who once declared it her mission to publish “good books for bad children.”