Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Conference Notes: "Our Greatest Children's Books," part 1

The opening speech on Saturday at the SCBWI-C conference was by Anita Silvey on the stories behind some of the greatest children stories of America. In her words:

Every book tells a story, but every book has a story behind it.
Here are some of the highlights from the speech (it was a good speech, so I'll add more of it later...).

  • Anne of Green Gables was almost never published. Montgomery eventually took it to a small publisher, and an editorial assistant loved the book. The publisher, however, didn't expect it to sell well and offered Montgomery a deal that wasn't good—$500 flat for Montgomery, and the publisher would own the rights forever. Montgomery loved her book, however, and insisted on 9 cents a book—which proved quite good, actually, as her first royalty was for over $1,000.
  • Side note: This new information was just posted on bookshelves of doom about Montgomery.
  • Wind in the Willows was given a very small print run because the publisher didn't believe in the book and wanted it to basically fade away so that Grahame would write something else. Teddy Roosevelt, however, loved it, and, as Anita Silvey said, it was the "only time in American history when a president affected publishing in a good way."
  • The Secret Garden was considered the least of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novels—Little Lord Flaunteroy was her famous work. Burnett was something of a JK Rowling of her time, but her two biggest books—The Secret Garden and The Little Princess were not mentioned in her obituary. Which leads us to an interesting question: which books will stand the test of time?
  • Ferdinand was the first banned picture book. The author said he "wrote about a bull because bunnies and kittens had been done to death," but because there was a war in Spain at the time of publication, people thought there was some sort of political message behind the story. There wasn't, of course, but the resulting controversy and censorship led to a huge financial success: the book made $1,500 the first year, $80,000 the next, and the following year topped Gone With the Wind on the charts. Of course, Silvey also noted that "censorship can launch a book, but it can never keep it in print" and that the positive message of the book—as well as good writing and illustrations—was what keeps it popular.
  • A note on censorship: Silvey mentioned that "When I was in publishing and censorship came up, we broke out the bubbly...[we would] cry all the way to the bank."
  • Little House in the Big Woods (part of the Wilder series) was called "The book that the Depression could not stop" and is still as popular now as it was during the Depression. This book was a collaboration between mother and daughter, but during that time period, co-authors were considered substandard—so only the mother's name is credited with writing the books.
  • The Trials and Trails of Jonathan Lint was a book about a dust bunny...that was never published. 14 editors rejected it, but one editor told the author/illustrator that the drawings were good, but the story boring. The author/illustrator read the book to her children...and they fell asleep. So she then analyzed what things did interest her kids and wrote Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. A note about the ending: she knew her original ending was bad, but had trouble coming up with a good one. A local boy gave her the idea for the ending, and she footnoted him in the book, giving him credit for it. Silvey spoke with the boy—and a man in his 80s—and he still thinks that helping with the ending of the book is the greatest accomplishment of his life.

Coming up tomorrow: An Irrepressible Monkey even the Nazis Couldn't Contain! Ducklings in a Bathtub! Horses at Book Signings!
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