Guest posts

Finally Fit for Kids’ Lit

By Julie Lasky January 26, 2012

Guest blogger Julie Lasky—design and visual culture journalist, critic, and author—talks about attempting to write a book for children on design. — SK

Julie Lasky

Guest blogger: Julie Lasky (Design Observer/Change Observer, New York)

Profile    Notable Books of 2011

Several months ago, a London-based publisher approached me about writing a picture book—specifically, a book that would teach children about design.

Ever since I was a child with literary ambitions, I’ve dreamed about publishing books for kids. This was originally a default aspiration: Before I was old enough to appreciate grown-up literature, I couldn’t imagine owning the faculties to write it. Children’s books seemed tailored to my size, and I had a library of favorites to imitate. (I was a shameless thief. It pains me to recall that at the age of nine, I reworked a 76-line Elizabeth Bishop poem, “The Fish,” which I had found in an illustrated poetry anthology, into an eight-line verse that began: “I caught a fish the other day./It did not try to get away.” I worry that those words will haunt me into old age and may even be the last to echo in my deteriorating memory.)

Seuss, Sendak, Cleary, Dahl, Lewis, and Tolkien were my models. I occupied a world in miniature: Little Women, The Little Lame Prince, Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.

Childhood classics.

I loved whatever was Gorey and gory, especially the Brothers Grimm, who produced a version of “Cinderella” in which songbirds satisfyingly peck out the evil stepsisters’ eyes. I was fascinated with the girl who can’t stop dancing in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes.” She finally gets relief when a woodcutter agrees to chop her feet off. And then there was the Little Mermaid, who pays a much greater price than the wimps at Disney would have you imagine for trading her tail in for legs. In Andersen’s story, every step the mermaid takes on land is agony.

What is it about mobility and suffering in fairy tales? A commentary on the paralysis of social classes? The Grimm Brothers’ stepsisters try to fit into Cinderella’s glass slipper by lopping off heels and toes; their dripping blood gives them away because the Prince is, well, not very observant.

From Andersen's Fairy Tales, illustrated by Arthur Szyk (Illustrated Junior Library, Grosset & Dunlap, 1973, 1945)

And what was the attraction for me? Did I like these horrors because I was the restless one, fighting stasis, longing for a promotion into adulthood, where I could be my own author?

A first chance came unexpectedly. Working at the graphic design magazine Print in the ’90s, I often found myself in the company of children’s book illustrators. In most cases, I wrote and fixed up articles about their books, but one artist shifted the dynamic and asked me to collaborate on a project. I wrote a sample text to match his sketches and remember little about it except that it was in verse. The artist showed the text to his agent. The agent sent back word that verse was not in vogue in children’s books.

Possibly that was true. Possibly the agent was trying to let me down easily. In any case, I was discouraged. I had believed that children’s publishing was a playpen of wanton creativity populated by the likes of Tomi Ungerer and William Steig, and I found it to be a military academy bounded by stern, flat regulations. A few imaginative people like Lane Smith and Maira Kalman had been able to charm their way through the institution’s gates, but I didn’t have a shred of their talent or gumption and it was better if I simply put my crocodile story into a drawer and moved on.

I launched a few feeble attempts after that. Inspired by two cats and later a daughter, I wrote what might be generously called stories and read them to my muses. In moments of extreme confidence or poverty, I considered publishing this writing, and then I was met with more discouragement. One children’s book editor pronounced a (non-rhyming) poem titled “I Love You as Much as an Elephant” not very interesting and certainly not viable in the hotly competitive category of books that proclaim a parent’s affection.

Given that history, I was deeply grateful when the publisher emailed last summer—and more than a little surprised. I suspected that the editors had never heard the song I wrote long ago to my now-deceased cats, Baby William and Roland. (Sing to the tune of “Ol’ Man River”):

Old fat William,
That old fat William,
His brain ain’t nothing
But turkey stuffing.
He just keeps Roland,
He just keeps Roland along.

All day eating
And all night snoring,
His food dish empty
And him out whoring,
That old fat William,
He just keeps Roland along.

So why were they interested? They knew I had a young child and had been immersed in design for a generation or so. They had just signed a book that teaches kids about architecture through the point of view of a pigeon. Now they wanted ideas for other design disciplines and were willing to sound me out.

At this point, I must be coy. Concepts have been passed back and forth and applauded, and a meeting was taken at a fancy Manhattan restaurant, but no contract has been signed yet. If I spill the details now, I’ll be asking for heartbreak and it’s back to writing household ditties. (A Wheaten terrier puppy recently joined our family, and the versifying impulse is coming on strong. What rhymes with “tufty”?)

What I can say is that this book won’t be a primer about design. People should be protected from the confusion associated with that word until they are old enough to practice it professionally. Let children learn about how things are made and where the raw material comes from. Let them extend the environmental lessons of stewardship by considering the objects we preserve and throw away. Let them study the history of invention, the evolution of customs, the cultural differences embodied in our communications and devices. Let them assemble and disassemble freely. But let them not refer to all that as design, which is so much more (a pursuit frequently guided by, and wriggling under the demands of, commercial interests), and so much less (see parenthetical insertion above).

Anyway, I’m glad the publisher got in touch. It’s about time.


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