I haven’t been this disappointed since I found out Aslan the lion was really Jesus and Narnia was proselytizing. As an only child, I could most often be found with my nose in a book. But as I was researching my favorite children’s authors, I learned that some of the “friends” from my salad days were far from innocent. In fact, many were not very nice people, and their ranks include perverts, bullies and racists. Read on to learn about their strange obsessions and dastardly deeds, but be warned — this is no fairy tale!
Kate Bartlett, Senior Editor
sex, drugs and … children’s literature?
1. Hans Christian Andersen
If you grew up on his fairy tales, it might surprise you to learn that the author was a wanker. Literally. In fact, he was so obsessed that he actually kept a diary of how often he shook hands with the milkman, with entries like “I had a double-sensuous ++.” The Dane never married but visited Paris brothels, not to have sex with the prostitutes but to chat with them and then go back to his hotel and, um, add a new entry to his diary. Some of TheLittle Mermaid author’s stories for children were incredibly dark and his troubled personal history might now explain why.
2. Kenneth Grahame
Badger, Mole, Ratty and that insufferable narcissist Mr. Toad were all staples of my childhood, with Wind in the Willows transporting me to the bucolic English countryside. The book still charms me with its pastoral innocence, so I was surprised to learn about author Grahame’s tragic life and sexual problems. The writer was asexual until, nearing 40, he began a romance with his soon-to-be wife, Elspeth. The two exchanged cringeworthy letters full of baby talk (adult Grahame still played with dolls and toys), but he was afraid of sex and she was left disappointed. Like giant pandas, however, they must have succeeded at least once because they had a son. Tragically, the child, for whom Grahame invented the stories that would become his greatest book, died of a likely suicide at 19.
3. Shel Silverstein
If you ever thought grown men cavorting with women dressed as bunnies was infantile, well, then, I suppose it makes sense that a children’s author would want to make his home in the Playboy Mansion. Which is exactly what this Where the Sidewalk Ends writer did. The talented draftsman started off drawing cartoons for Hugh Hefner’s magazine in the 1950s, and later lived with him in his infamous party pad, where he wrote many of his beloved children’s books.
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I do not like them Sam-I-am, I will not print green eggs and ham. If you’re unaware of the controversy over Dr. Seuss supposedly being canceled earlier this year, you must have been living under a rock. The writer’s estate announced it was pulling six books containing racist stereotypes from circulation, sparking a huge debate over cancel culture on Fox News and elsewhere. Of course, no publicity is bad publicity, and sales of his work have skyrocketed. That some of his cartoons from the 1950s are unacceptable to modern audiences, however, is perhaps less surprising than his sordid personal life. Theodor Seuss Geisel cheated on his wife, resulting in her later committing suicide.
2. Rudyard Kipling
Most children love fat, lazy Baloo the bear and kindly panther Bagheera in The Jungle Book, but questions have long been raised over their creator, Rudyard Kipling, who has been slammed as a racist and an apologist for colonialism. The furor has been less about his children’s books, however, and more to do with his poem “Mandalay,” which British Prime Minister Boris Johnson unwisely quoted during a visit to Myanmar in 2017 and was quickly quieted by the U.K. ambassador. The arbiter of all things British, the BBC dropped the poem from planned Victory Day celebrations, and a mural of another poem of Kipling’s at Manchester University was painted over and replaced with one by Maya Angelou.
3. Roald Dahl
Witches turn children into mice, wives feed their husbands spaghetti worms and Veruca Salt disappears down a garbage shoot. Gross and nasty things happen in nearly all of Dahl’s books, and children are endlessly delighted by them, but, given his violent imagination, perhaps it’s not surprising the author himself had an unpleasant side. We won’t judge Dahl for writing erotica on the side (including one story about not a giant peach but a giant penis) or cheating on his wife, but we will bring him to book for his anti-Semitism. “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity,” he said in a 1983 interview. “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”
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To children, The Little Prince is a simple tale about a boy and a fox. For adults, it’s a philosophical treatise on loneliness, love and conflict, made all the more pertinent by its pilot-writer’s disappearance near the end of World War II. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had escaped Vichy France for the U.S. in the 1930s and, despite being in his 40s, convinced the Americans to let him fly reconnaissance missions for them. He died during one of these in 1944, apparently after being shot down or in a plane crash, but the wreckage wasn’t found until 1998, after fishermen in Marseille caught a silver bracelet belonging to the writer in their net, and divers then found the plane.
The witty, sharp-tongued playwright isn’t a children’s author, you may exclaim. But there you’d be wrong. Wilde wrote The Happy Prince and Other Tales, which, despite the title, all have a certain melancholy about them. And they’re all the more poignant when you read them in light of the flamboyant raconteur’s tragic life. Wilde, who was gay, was jailed for “gross indecency” in 1895 and sentenced to two years hard labor, during which he wrote his famous and heartbreaking poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” He only lived three years after his release as a bankrupt and broken man.
3. J.M. Barrie
Researching the dark side to children’s authors, a clear pattern has emerged. Many of them had childlike natures themselves. This was certainly true with the Peter Pan author, who altered the will of a family friend after she died so that he would become the guardian of her five sons instead of their nanny. The characters of Neverland in Barrie’s novel were based around the children, but unlike their never-aging fictional counterparts, three of the real Lost Boys died young. While one brother died as a soldier in World War I, another threw himself under a train and the third drowned in what was a suspected suicide.
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1. Ludwig Bemelmans
The beloved author of Madeline, a story about a mischievous Parisian girl, was also quite the rebel. While on holiday in Germany in the 1930s, the American showed such disdain for Hitler that he was promptly thrown in jail. He had been sitting with his wife in a beer garden not far from the Führer’s home when a broadcast by the Nazi leader came on the radio. Like John Cleese in the famous goose-stepping scene in Fawlty Towers, Bemelmans muttered, “Pooh-pooh to the tiger in the zoo,” placed a cigar stub on his top lip and offered up a mock Nazi salute. His impersonation saw him charged as a subversive, and he had to be rescued by the American vice consul.
What do the billionaire Koch brothers, whose right-wing movement helped give rise to the Tea Party, have to do with iconic Little House books? Well, in the 1960s, the brothers attended a free-market academy in Colorado called the Freedom School established by author Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, and sometimes editor, Rose. Both were staunch opponents of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, which expanded the role of the federal government. The Little House books advocated for rugged individualism, grit and hard work, and the women basically helped kick-start the libertarian movement.
I named my first dog, Scamper, after the faithful hound in TheSecret Seven, and I am still salivating over Blyton’s descriptions of picnics and midnight feasts with “lashings” of ginger beer, hard-boiled eggs and warm buttered bread. I was such a fan of the ever-so-innocent books, where the rudest thing ever said was “golly gosh,” that I was aggrieved to learn that the writer had a darker side. Her daughter Imogen once said Blyton “was without a trace of maternal instinct,” and she cheated on her husband but then banned the children from seeing him after the divorce. The U.K.’s Royal Mint even dropped Blyton from consideration as the face of a new coin in 2019 owing to her “racist, sexist and homophobic” views. She also apparently enjoyed the occasional game of naked tennis. Golly gosh!