Nightlight
Children's books and the adults who make them.

Aug. 17 2016 2:59 PM

The Wonderful, Terrible Power of Food in Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl wrote swirling sugar fantasias, palaces of chocolate, and a floating, dripping den of peach flesh. He wrote frothing chocolate waterfalls and gravity-negating fizzy drinks and “lovely blue birds’ eggs with black spots on them,” which, when sucked on, get “smaller and smaller until suddenly there is nothing left except a tiny little pink sugary baby bird sitting on the tip of your tongue.”

Dahl's feasts are his imaginative aristeias. At the same time, Dahl’s most whimsical confections are always paired with torments for those who can’t resist them. Overindulge—drink from the forbidden chocolate river—and, whoops, you are Augustus Gloop torpedoing toward the fudge boiler. Dahl’s culinary flights of fancy are matched by endlessly inventive brutality toward those who eat too much, the Bruno Jenkinses and the Augustus Gloops (Gloop with its terrible smack of formless, spreading flesh).

Aug. 16 2016 9:30 AM

The Three Robbers and the Moral-Free Children’s Books of Tomi Ungerer

My 3-year-old son, for reasons that can only be guessed at, has an abiding fascination with bad guys. He’s deeply enamored of the Star Wars films, for instance, but it’s primarily the dark side of the Force that he’s drawn to. When he dresses up it tends to be in the dramatic apparel of intergalactic villainy: a Darth Vader, a Kylo Ren, an Imperial Stormtrooper. He has, too, a fondness for films whose protagonists are, on paper, obvious villains, but whose nefariousness is mitigated by the influence of children. He’s a big fan, as such, of the Despicable Me films, and of Hotel Transylvania and its sequel, in which Adam Sandler’s crotchety but basically good-natured Dracula does not murder people and suck their blood but instead deals with a comic variety of domestic upheavals, like an undead Clark Griswold.

A few months back, he and I were in the children’s section of a bookstore, enacting our customary routine of proposal and rejection. He had dismissed out of hand a dozen or so of the titles I’d taken off the shelf and presented for his inspection—salutary tales, mostly, about anthropomorphic beasts progressing toward the state of virtuous sleep—when I came across a book with an attractively enigmatic cover featuring three elegantly rendered figures, dark-cloaked and glowering outward at the prospective reader from under tall black hats. It was, I noted, published by the art book publisher Phaidon, and it looked fancy. I was already imagining the memories he would have of the book in 30 years’ time: the images, the feel of it in his hands, the smell of its pages.

Aug. 15 2016 1:39 PM

Gertrude Stein Wrote a Children’s Book, and It’s As Weirdly Mesmerizing As You’d Think  

Lucy Sprague Mitchell, founder of the Bank Street College of Education, was sick of children’s books. She didn’t want didactic moral tales that told kids what to do, or mythological flights of fancy. Instead, she wanted children’s stories that actually showed children how to experience the world. In 1921, Mitchell published the Here and Now Story Book, stories for children written in direct language that helped readers learn through observation and discovery. Instead of just writing, “Henry looked up,” she believed, a story should say, “Henry threw back his head and looked up.” Children, Mitchell thought, should go through the story in real time, performing the same muscular actions as the storybook kids––monkey read, monkey do.

In 1938, before she’d become famous for Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny, Margaret Wise Brown was the first editor at Young Scott Books, a new publishing house that wanted to print the type of books Mitchell and Bank Street favored. Young Scott solicited manuscripts from writers of grown-up literature, hoping their picks might have a suitable kids’ book in them. Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck rejected the offer. But Gertrude Stein responded not only that she wanted to do it, but that she “had already nearly completed” the perfect book for the project.

By 1938, Stein had established herself as a writer grappling with psychological immediacy. Like Mitchell, Stein was drawn to William James’ ideas about stream of consciousness, and when she studied at Radcliffe, she practiced automatic writing under James’ tutelage. Stein was also already obsessed with education and children’s thought processes. In works such as the play Reread Another (written in 1921) and the essay “An Elucidation” (1923), Stein simultaneously adopts the roles of both lecturer and faux-naïf pupil. So when Young Scott reached out with the offer to write explicitly for children, Stein leapt at the chance, and in 1938, Young Scott published The World Is Round.

Aug. 12 2016 11:09 AM

How Did Children’s Literature Evolve From Prim Morality Tales to the Likes of Captain Underpants?

Children’s literature has a long and complex history, not least because the definition of “children’s literature” is so contested. Does the genre describe books for kids? Books kids read? Is it meant to instruct young people or delight them, unleash their imaginations or awaken their morality? Does it play for Team Order or Team Nonsense? What if it does all those things?

Literary critic and U.C. San Diego professor Seth Lerer is an expert on the subject. He’s the author of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter, a wide-ranging, captivating, and extremely fun work of scholarship that won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 2008. Slate chatted with Lerer about the very first children’s books, how libraries once taught kids the ABCs of American citizenship, and the forest-blaze phenomenon of Harry Potter. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Aug. 11 2016 6:21 PM

A Nancy Drew Ghostwriter on the Art of Being “Carolyn Keene” and the Evolution of Nancy Drew in a More Feminist Age

Since the original series was introduced in 1930, girl detective Nancy Drew has evolved from squeaky-clean teen to college coed, to, most recently, a thirtysomething police officer in a pilot CBS reportedly nixed as “too female” for its fall schedule. Though Carolyn Keene is the name that appears on the cover of every Nancy Drew book, it’s no big secret that the books were written by ghostwriters, as were many popular kids’ megaseries of the past, from Sweet Valley High to the Baby-Sitters Club. To try to find out what it’s really like in the ghostwriting saltmines—and how the Nancy Drew character has evolved for a more feminist era—we talked to former ghost Alice Leonhardt. Leonhardt was a ghostwriter for various kids’ mystery series, including Nancy Drew, for several decades beginning in the late ’80s. Lately, she’s mostly been teaching and busying herself with writing her own books—including, most recently, the Dog Chronicles, for Peachtree Publishers. Slate chatted with Leonhardt about the art of ghost-writing and the evolution of Nancy Drew.

Aug. 10 2016 12:24 PM

Watership Down and the Power of Not-Quite-Appropriate Children’s Books

In April, the BBC and Netflix announced an ambitious four-part animated dramatization of Richard Adams’ childhood classic, Watership Down, to be released in 2017. By the looks of the thoughtfully chosen cast and much-touted production budget, it seems likely that this new Watership Down may overtake the particular, trippy charms of Martin Rosen’s 1978 film in the hearts and minds of a new generation. With any luck, it will steer viewers back to the novel, which has violence and haunting oddness in spades.

Watership Down, which I would feel comfortable describing as one of the finest and most interesting books of the 20th century, is most accessible to older children and adults, despite having originated from gentle tales Adams told to his children on long car rides. This disparity between material and tone made literary agents and publishers uneasy when the manuscript first crossed their desk: Rabbits, Adams says in his introduction to newer editions of the book, were considered a topic too “babyish” to appeal to an older audience, while the writing was too complex and literary for the sorts of younger children for whom rabbits would be a logical selling point.

Aug. 9 2016 11:11 AM

We’re Giving the Wrong Dr. Seuss Book as a Graduation Gift

Hey, I get why you’d give a Dr. Seuss book as a graduation gift. It ticks all the boxes: nostalgia for childhood, lessons for the future, jubilance for the day itself. It hits the whole major chord of grace notes you want to hear on commencement day: wit, whimsy, wisdom, wistfulness. Seuss was a beloved grandfather figure, full of winks and jests for his young audience: He intertwines in one person the whole multigenerational rainbow you see in the folding chairs at a graduation ceremony. Best of all, when you give the gift of Seuss, you know the panicked job-hunting 18- or 22-year-old recipient might actually take the seven minutes required to read it. So yeah, I get why you’d turn to old Theodore Geisel on graduation day.

I just don’t get why you’d pick Oh the Places You’ll Go!

Aug. 8 2016 2:16 PM

How American Girl’s Puberty Books Shaped a Generation of Tweens

In 1986, Pleasant Rowland, a former elementary school teacher and children’s textbook writer, introduced a line of mail-order dolls. Each had a distinct look and came packaged with a book that told the story of her cultural background and the American historical era she represented. Over the three decades that followed, the American Girl brand became a cultural touchstone for teen girls across the country thanks to its many offshoots—including a popular bi-monthly magazine, a line of make-your-own dolls, and various high-end retail stores. Also, because of its puberty books.

While the multi-ethnic dolls may be the face of the American Girl universe, the company’s greatest cultural contribution is even more enduring than a massive fleet of sturdily-built Addys and Samanthas. For millennial women of a certain age and socioeconomic background, books such as Help! An Absolutely Indispensable Guide for Girls and Oops! The Manners Guide for Girls couldn’t have arrived at a more crucial period in our young lives. In the same way that Our Bodies, Ourselves touched a nerve with the generations before us, The Care & Keeping of You provided us with accessible and nutritious comfort food to help us through the most awkward and anxiety-ridden periods of youth.

Aug. 8 2016 11:35 AM

Frog and Toad, Elephant and Piggie ... and Snail and Worm

Onstage they’re known as “two-handers”: stories with two main characters in which the drama (and the comedy) comes mostly from the interplay between the two. Sure, other characters might show up from time to time, but it’s mostly a two-man show. Frost and Nixon. Frankie and Johnny. Vladimir and Estragon. Sometimes the form moves to the screen: André and Wally, or Wallace and Gromit, or Jesse and Celine. For the length of the story, it’s just these two people we care about, and we track the shifting dynamics between them as closely as we would follow the twists and turns of a spy thriller.

We know how to watch these two-handers, in part, because children’s literature has long excelled at the form. Kids look to books to teach them how to manage in the world, and the give-and-take of friendship is an endlessly rich topic. And so from Frog and Toad we learn how to apologize for an unkindness. From George and Martha we learn when to cooperate and when to stand our ground. From Elephant and Piggie we learn how to help one another (and to fear the void).

Add to the ranks of great kid-lit duos the slimy pair at the heart of Snail & Worm, from author-illustrator Tina Kügler. (Disclaimer: Kügler and I went to the same high school in Wisconsin.) In this book, the first of a new series, Kügler reminds very young readers the joys of being silly with a pal. Both Snail and Worm get a little scared sometimes—they are just invertebrates, after all—but everything works out just fine in these “three stories about two friends.”

Kügler, who’s worked as a storyboard artist, draws with energy and verve, and portrays complex concepts as fluidly as she does simple ones. (Her earlier book In Mary’s Garden, co-written with her husband, Carson Kügler, explores knotty issues of creativity and inspiration.) Snail and Worm are charming, whimsical characters in a cheerful pencil-and-collage environment. A former kid’s bookshop owner, Kügler also has an encyclopedic knowledge of the world of children’s books, which makes her the perfect illustrator for Nightlight, Slate’s monthlong blog about young people’s literature. Enjoy her illustrations all through August!

Nightlight is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s books, running for the month of August. Read about it here.

Aug. 5 2016 11:26 AM

The Librarian Who Changed Children’s Literature Forever

They called her ACM, but never, ever, to her face. Her staff at the celebrated Room 105 of the New York Public Library were expected to observe strict decorum at all times, but those who passed muster got to see the giants of the first age of children’s book publishing walk through the door to pay court to Anne Carroll Moore, superintendent of the Department of Work With Children for the NYPL from 1906 to 1941. Beatrix Potter considered her a close friend; she could summon William Butler Yeats to appear at her library events. Carl Sandburg described Moore as “an occurrence, a phenomenon, an apparition not often risen and seen among the marching manikins of human progress.”

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