Librarian Reveals Truth About Classic Picture Book Authors and It’s Not What You Think

It’s been a long year of reading news on my phone, and among the many ways this has warped my personality is an increased tendency to fall for clickbait. You know the stories that draw you in with an irresistible headline, then string you along for thirty-seven more clicks, with several new ads on each page, until you finally get to the possibly disappointing payoff at the end? “Man Dumps Carrots into Toilet. The Result is Simply Unreal.” “Here’s What Happens When You Send Garlic Bread to the Edge of Space, Then Eat It.” “Was Amelia Earhart Eaten by Coconut Crabs?”    

Well, not only have I become a sucker for those things, but I now realize if you turn everything you see into clickbait, all of life can be as intriguing as the outrageous truth about green gummy bears that will destroy your whole world, or the 11 babies who look like middle aged men. So when it came time to write a blog post this month, I decided to whip it up into the most delectable dollop of literary clickbait imaginable, with the added bonus for you, dear reader, of being spared any advertising (unless you count links to copies of all the books mentioned, which of course are available to check out for free). To stay true to the conventions of the genre, I threw in a creepy photo that looks vaguely gross or like a body part you can't quite make out.

Goodnight Moon Has Sold Millions, and You Won’t Believe Who Gets the Money

The life of Goodnight Moon author Margaret Wise Brown contained enough ups and downs to fill more than one riveting biography (in fact, we have a few at the library, one for grown-ups, one for teens, and one for kids), but the unusual circumstances of her death and last will and testament concern us here. After surgery to remove an ovarian cyst and her appendix in a French hospital in 1952, Brown was confined to bed for several weeks. When she performed a mock can-can to demonstrate to hospital staff how good she felt, an embolism in her leg dislodged and travelled to her brain. She lost consciousness and suddenly died.

More surprising than her death was her will, which granted royalties from Goodnight Moon, and many other titles, to a 9-year old neighbor boy, Albert Clarke. As journalist Joshua Prager details, the fortunes of Goodnight Moon and its heir then “began to diverge with strange symmetry.” While the book became one of the bestselling bedtime stories in history, Clarke struggled, and his life, up to the point of Prager’s profile of him in 2000, was a saga of violence, run-ins with the law, and severed relationships.               

Goodnight Moon

Margaret Wise Brown

In the Great Green Room

The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown

Nazis Almost Caught Curious George. Here’s How He Escaped.

Margret and H. A. Rey (born Margarete Waldstein and Hans Augusto Reyersbach) were both from Hamburg, Germany. As a young man, Hans moved to Brazil, where Margarete eventually joined him. They married, became citizens, and changed their surname to Rey, which was easier for people to pronounce. In Rio, Hans began drawing monkeys, including the pair of marmosets the couple kept as pets.  

The Reys took a honeymoon trip back to Europe, fell in love with life in Paris, and stayed there. They began work on a children’s story about a monkey named Fifi, and another about a penguin named Whiteblack. In the spring of 1940, the Germans invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, and refugees flooded into Paris. The Reys, who were Jewish, decided to flee to Brazil, but ran into delays obtaining the proper documents to get out of France in the chaos that preceded the German invasion. They cut it so close, in fact, that by the time they could leave, trains had stopped running. They had no car, so Hans cobbled together a pair of bikes from whatever spare parts remained at a local bike shop. They fled with only what they could fit into several baskets as Paris fell to the Germans behind them.  

Over 5 million people packed the southward roads of France, Louise Borden writes in her brilliant chronicle of the Reys’ escape, The Journey That Saved Curious George. They pedaled to Orleans, caught a train to Bayonne, hopped back on their bikes to Biarritz, and eventually made their way across Spain to Lisbon, Portugal, on another train. They crossed the Atlantic on a ship, stayed for a time in Rio, then boarded another ship to New York City, where they arrived a full four months after leaving Paris. Here they stayed for the next 23 years.  

Among the belongings in their bike baskets were manuscripts of the children’s stories they had been working on in Paris. The monkey Fifi was renamed Curious George, and they soon published the first of many books about him. The penguin manuscript they saved eventually became the book Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World.

The Journey That Saved Curious George

Curious George

Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World

He Found Out Who Wrote The Little Engine That Could, and It’s Not Who You Think

The Little Engine That Could and its chugging mantra “I think I can, I think I can” have inspired generations of children, and various artists have had a hand in illustrating it over the years, including Lois Lenski (1930), George and Doris Hauman (1954), Ruth Sanderson (1976), Loren Long (2005), and this year’s version by Dan Santat, which comes complete with an introduction by Dolly Parton. But who is Watty Piper, the author credited with penning the actual story?  

Roy Plotnick, a paleontology professor by trade, researched this question extensively in his spare time and unearthed a story so complicated he wrote up his findings in a scholarly article. As Plotnick writes, not only had the story been around for decades before Watty Piper rewrote it for the “first” version in 1930, but Watty Piper himself never even existed. In fact, the name was a stock pseudonym used frequently by the book’s publisher, Platt & Munk.  

Platt & Munk purchased the copyright to an earlier version (1916) of the little engine story by Mabel Bragg, and even cited her on the title page of their first version of the book. By 1954, it had sold an estimated 1 million copies, and a new “Silver Anniversary Edition” was published that year. But a real person emerged to challenge Platt & Munk’s claim to authorship. This was Frances Ford, a 100-year old former children’s author and newspaper editor, who had, it was proven by a distant cousin who took up her cause with fervor, published a version of the story in a small children’s literary magazine in 1912 under the pseudonym “Uncle Nat.” Ford’s cousin appealed to the public in the press, and rival publisher Grosset & Dunlap noticed, awarding Ford a book deal for her version.  

Arthur Munk of Platt & Munk, the closest thing there was to a real Watty Piper, depended on The Little Engine That Could for most of his firm’s income, and defended it accordingly. He pleaded his own case in the media, placing and ad in the New York Times Book Review offering a $1000 reward to anyone who could provide evidence of a version of the story older than Ford's. There were three winners: $400 went to a Philadelphia librarian who found a 1910 version of the story published in a magazine, $300 went to that version’s author, and $300 went to a South Dakotan who found another 1910 reprint of the story with no author attribution.  Ford’s deal with Grosset & Dunlap was delayed, and never came to fruition in her lifetime.  After her death, the company did publish a mostly forgotten adaptation of her version they called The Little Engine, but as is the way with publishing companies in our time, Grosset & Dunlap eventually acquired Platt & Munk, and kept publishing Arthur Munk’s book.       

Plotnick traces the little engine story back even further, though. It first appears in the United States in 1904, in an inspirational speech at a trade group meeting, and evidence exists that even then it was already commonly told in this context, and in church sermons, usually with adults as its target audience. He concludes that the story is really a sort of folk tale that originated during the height of the railroads in the late 19th century, and was passed on by word of mouth long before “Watty Piper” ever put pen to paper.       

The Little Engine That Could

The Little Engine That Could

The Little Engine That Could

Hopefully these outrageous truths haven’t destroyed your world, but if so, just be glad you didn’t also have to look at a bunch of ads for stuff you didn’t know your phone knew you had been thinking about getting anyway. Now I need to go look at mine some more, because a leading scientist warns there’s an apocalypse coming, and it’s not the one I expect. That sounds like a welcome change of subject from what I usually read on there.  

-Dan Coleman is a Collection Development Librarian at Lawrence Public Library.

Special thanks to Roy Plotnick, Professor Emeritus, Invertebrate Paleobiology and Paleontology, Ecology, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, for sharing his article “In Search of Watty Piper: The History of the ‘Little Engine’ Story” (New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship, 18:11-26, 2012), and for helping identify Jim's mysterious river find: It's a mastodon molar (Mammut americanum)!  Thanks to Megan Elayne Sims at the KU Natural History Museum for taking a look and confirming it, too.  Credit is also due to the folks at #stopclickbait, whose tireless work clicking through clickbait articles, then summarizing the kicker in one or two lines so we don’t have to, provided an invaluable trove of primary source material.

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