The following article is reprinted from The Best of Uncle John’ Bathroom Reader.
It’s fascinating (at least to us) to find out how classic children’s books were created. There aren’t necessarily magical stories behind them; some were conceived in bars or business meetings, some were inspired by hated relatives, and some just evolved out of other books. Still, it’s interesting trivia. Here are some examples.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
In November 1955, Maurice Sendak, a young storybook artist, drew up a draft of a children’s story he called Where the Wild Horses Are. The only problem: “I couldn’t really draw horses,” Sendak said, “and I didn’t, for the longest time, know what to use for a substitute. I tried lots of animals in the title, but they just didn’t sound right.” In 1963, Sendak finally settled on Things, dumping the horses in favor of monsters that were based on the Brooklyn relatives he detested as a child. “I remember how inept they were at making small talk with children. There you’d be, totally helpless, while they cooed over you and pinched your cheeks. Or they’d lean way over with their bad teeth and hairy noses, and say something threatening like, ‘You’re so cute, I could eat you up.’ And I knew if my mother didn’t hurry up with the cooking, they probably would.”
E.B. White based the most famous of his three children’s stories on this own experiences at his farm in Maine. “I like animals,” he once explained, “and my barn is a very pleasant place to be… One day when I was on my way to feed the pig, I began feeling sorry for the pig because, like most pigs, he was doomed to die. The made me sad. So I started thinking of ways to save a pig’s life. I had been watching a big, gray spider at her work and I was impressed by how clever she was at weaving. Gradually I worked the spider into the story, …a story of friendship and salvation on the farm.” (No word on whether he spared the real pig’s life.)
When Hans Augusto Rey was growing up in Hamburg, Germany, he loved going to the zoo. Later, when he began writing children’s stories, he filled his books with the exotic animals from his past. His first book, Cicily G. and the Nine Monkeys, was about a giraffe who befriends some monkeys. Rey gave each of the monkeys personalities, including one named George, which he described as “clever and curious.” He liked George so much that he wrote an entire story about him. Curious George was published in 1941.
Note: Curious George literally saved Rey’s life. In 1940, Rey and his wife were in Paris when the Nazis invaded, and he had to flee the country. While trying to escape on bicycles, they were arrested by police who thought they were spies. An official searching their belongings came across an unpublished manuscript of Curious George, and released the Reys, saying that no spy could write such a wonderful story.
In 1939, Ludwig Bemelmans wrote the first Madeline book in Pete’s Tavern at 18th and Irving in New York City, using the backs of the tavern’s menus as writing paper. The story was based both on his mother’s life as a young girl in Bavaria, and his own recollections as the smallest boy in a boarding school. He named the main character after his wife Madeleine, a former nun (he changed the spelling so it would rhyme more easily).
THE LITTLE PRINCE
In 1941 Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a famous French Air Force pilot, adventurer, and author, was having lunch with a publisher in New York. He happened to pick up a napkin and started doodling a picture of a little boy. “Who’s that?” the publisher asked. “Oh,” Saint-Exupery reportedly replied, “just a little fellow I carry around in my heart.” The publisher suggested that Saint-Exupery wrote a story about the character. He agreed to give it a try, and The Little Prince was published in 1943.
In 1921, essayist A.A. Milne gave his son Christopher Robin a stuffed bear for his first birthday. He named the bear “Winnie-the-Pooh” after Winnie, a real bear at the London Zoo. Milne entertained his son with stories about Pooh that were so charming, the editor of a London children’s magazine suggested he publish them. When We Were Very Young, a book of verse introducing Pooh, came out in 1924, and Winnie-the-Pooh was published in 1926.
Note: Christopher Milne was never comfortable with his fame. In his 1974 autobiography, he blamed his father for “getting where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders and filching my good name.”