The Stories Behind Our Favorite Children’s Picture Books

Aug 3, 2017

One of my greatest delights is taking my grandchildren to the bookstore. The teens avidly read the latest young adult series books, and the middle readers love to discover that they can go up a level in the princess and superhero chapter book category. Then there’s my grandson back east, who is devouring the “Who’s Who?” biographies faster than I can send them to him! But the love of books begins, of course, with picture books that we read to them as babies and toddlers.

And while I love discovering beautiful new books to read to my youngest grandkids, there is no denying the unending allure of the classic, iconic children’s picture books. We all have our favorites. Maybe they’re remembered from our childhoods, or from the bedtime reading we did with our own children, or perhaps they are the books we most love reading to our grandkids. Some of them we know by heart: “In an old house in Paris/ that was covered with vines…” Perhaps we delight in buying the stuffed animals and dolls that go along with them nowadays.

I certainly have my favorites and am always so happy to settle in with a grandchild and read a book that even he or she knows by heart. But one thing I find interesting and new is the opportunity to learn the backstory for some of these classic books.

For instance, I discovered only recently that Ludwig Bemelmans, the author/illustrator of the Madeline books, was a naturalized American citizen who lived in France and Germany as a child. His multi-lingual background accounted for some of the unusual rhymes in the Madeline books, such as “beef” and “Genevieve” as well as “France” and “ven-ge-ance.” He named his heroine after his wife, whose name was Madeleine, but changed it to Madeline because that was easier to rhyme.

The “old house in Paris” of the books is a boarding school, based on his mother’s stories about the convent school she attended. When he visited, he did indeed see rows of little beds and washbasins. He himself attended boarding school and claimed that he was the smallest one there. But the real catalyst for the original book came when he was hit by a car while bicycling on vacation at the seaside in France. In the hospital recovering, he encountered a bed with a crank, a ceiling with a crack, and a little girl who proudly showed him her appendix scar!

Another iconic children’s book, Goodnight Moon, was a collaboration between the prolific children’s book author Margaret Wise Brown and illustrator Christopher Hurd. They had worked on a number of books together before, and though she finished the text in 1945, she waited for him to come home from his World War II service in the Pacific so he could do the artwork. It turns out that the “quiet old lady whispering hush” is a rabbit, rather than a human lady, because the artist drew animals better than people! And though the author never had children of her own, she certainly had an uncanny sense of the rhythms of language that would resonate with very young children, and as many a parent can attest, could actually lull them to sleep!

The book was published in 1947 and has sold over 48 million copies since then. It did begin with a bit of controversy, however. It was in the forefront of a new kind of children’s literature called the “here and now”. This new genre, based on contemporary research in early child development, aimed to depict children’s actual lives and environments and was a marked departure from the fairytales and moralizing stories that had heretofore defined children’s literature. The New York Public library actually refused to stock the book until 1973, but eventually honored it as one of its “Books of the Century.”

The most chilling backstory of a classic children’s book that I know of is that of Curious George, by the husband and wife team of Hans and Margret Rey. They were German Jews living in Paris on an extended honeymoon when Hitler invaded France in 1940. They knew that Jews were being rounded up and they had to escape. But the trains had stopped running and there were no more bicycles for sale. So Hans found spare parts and put together his own bicycle and the two pedaled across France forty-eight hours ahead of the Nazis.

They took only what they could carry, including five manuscripts. One of them was the story of a very curious little monkey, whom they had named Fifi. At one point, the story goes, they were stopped by a border guard who asked what they did. They showed him one of the manuscripts. He read it and said that his kids would like it, and he let them go. Eventually, they made their way to Brazil and then the United States. Their American editor at Houghton Mifflin thought that Fifi needed a more American name, and so Curious George was born.

The original book was published in 1941, and to date all the beloved Curious George books have sold over 25 million copies. We don’t know for certain whether it was Curious George who saved Hans and Margret Rey, but we do know that they most definitely saved Curious George.

My favorite backstory is that of The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. I’ve written about this in Chapter IV of my new book, The Alchemy of Illuminated Poetry®, where I discuss the positive impact of constraints on the creative process. The story begins in 1955 when an article by John Hershey, “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” appeared, discussing how boring the standard Dick and Jane early reader primers were. So Dr. Seuss’ publisher challenged him to write and illustrate a book for beginning readers using a list of only 236 words, considered in the range of a six or seven year old. The result was The Cat in the Hat, which was published in 1957. It was an instant success and launched the entire “I Can Read” book genre.

Dr. Seuss was the pen name of the author /illustrator, whose real name was Theodore Geisel. Apparently, he chose his pen name because Seuss was his mother’s maiden name, and she had always wanted him to become a doctor. Perhaps had he been one he would have healed many people, but laughter and joy are their own medicine, and his enduring work has brought so much of that to millions of children through the generations.


Madeline and Miss Clavel in front of the “old house in Paris/that was covered in vines”