We like to think of children’s book authors as sweet and wholesome, since these are the people helping to mold young minds. You wouldn’t expect anything but sunshine and rainbows from someone who writes about talking rabbits learning how to share, after all. But the dark reality is, many of your favorite children’s book authors are much more scandalous than you ever realized.
10. Lemony Snicket, aka Daniel Handler
The A Series of Unfortunate Events books tell the tale of three children who were orphaned after a fire destroyed their home and killed their parents. Okay, so we’re already starting from a pretty dark place. The children learn from their hardships that each misfortune makes them stronger, so the next battle is easier to win.
In one real life unfortunate event, author Daniel Handler managed to alienate an entire crowd at the National Book Awards by making a racist joke. After African-American author Jacqueline Woodson won her award, Handler took the stage and proclaimed, “I told Jackie she was going to win, and I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in.”
He has since publicly apologized for the slip up, acknowledging that the inappropriate comment was blatantly racist.
9. Mary Lamb
When you hear “Mary Lamb” you probably think more “had a little” and less “successful 1800s children’s author.” Along with her brother Charles, she wrote Tales From Shakespeare, a series of adaptations of Shakespeare meant for children. Their adaptations are actually still quite popular today.
Mary’s writing isn’t the only thing she is remembered for though. Like something out of the Shakespeare plays she adapted, she gained infamy for stabbing and killing her mother. Mary was ruled innocent by means of temporary insanity, brought on by the stress of caring for her invalid mother as well as financially supporting the family with her needlework. After her breakdown, Mary was placed in the care of her older brother, who simultaneously cared for her mental state and fostered her writing skills. Together they published Mrs. Leicester’s School: A Book of Children’s Stories, and Poetry for Children.
8. Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl published 28 children’s books, the most famous among them James and the Giant Peach, Witches, The Fantastic Mr.Fox, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Matilda. Dahl had the ability to create engaging worlds where kids encountered terrible adversity but always prevailed in the end. He empowered children with his stories, though the content was sometimes questioned for its open references to magic, racism, alcohol abuse, and use of words like “ass” and “slut”. Of course with his free use of such words, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that he was simultaneously trying his hand at pornographic stories for Playboy, further muddying his reputation.
But as famed as Dahl was as a writer, he was an equally legendary womanizer. He was quick to seduce and bed married women, and engaged in extramarital affairs of his own before divorcing his wife and marrying his mistress.
Anti-Semitic sentiments appear in many of his stories, inspired by Jewish publishers who had turned down his work – sentiments for which he never really apologized. In 1983, he told a journalist, “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity. I mean there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”
7. Sarah Ferguson, The Duchess of York
You probably didn’t realize Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, was a children’s author but her Tea for Ruby was a popular and successful picture book. While she’d probably prefer people associate her with her children’s stories, it’s stories from her personal life that have gained her notoriety and made her a tabloid fixture. Her very public divorce and attempt to sell a reporter access to her ex-husband for $724,000 became the kind of scandalous story TMZ was built on, with news of that particular scandal striking the very day she appeared at BookExpo America to promote Tea for Ruby.
Of course, that’s not where her tumultuous life ends. Trouble arose for Ferguson when the Turkish government issued a warrant for her arrest after she sneaked into the country to film the appalling state of orphanages, hoping to raise awareness. When the Turkish government discovered her true purpose in visiting the country they accused her of acquiring the footage illegally and threatened her with 22 years in prison.
6. Edward Gorey
Edward Gorey was both a talented artist and an author of macabre children’s tales. Without apology, Gorey created stories about children contracting diseases, being run over by vehicles, and crushed in street fights. Notable titles include The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Evil Garden, and The Doubtful Guest.
Many of his children’s books were scrutinized for their black humor, but it was a book meant for adults that became his most scandalous creation. The Recently Deflowered Girl is a parody of etiquette books, addressing a wide range of romantic issues for newly promiscuous women. Gorey used the book to poke fun at women who have sex with married men, men playing doctor, and famous crooners. One poem playfully combines sexuality with racism, as a Chinese detective speaks in broken English, “Long finger of accusation points to you as murderer. Lord Pilroy obviously did not deflower you — because I have flower.”
5. Maurice Sendak
The author of Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are had a penchant for making mischief fun. Playful and full of humor, he created lovable characters with an edge, all the while hiding his own edge: Sendak was gay. He wasn’t controversial or scandalous by today’s standards, but unfortunately he lived in a time when his lifestyle was still considered taboo, especially for a man who made his living entertaining children. He believed that it would destroy his career if anyone found out, so he hid his sexuality.
It wasn’t until 2007, at the age of 79, that he confessed to a New York Times reporter that he was in fact gay. His parter of fifty years, Eugene Glynn, had just passed away and Sendak had never openly spoken about their relationship. In his interview he confessed the one thing he had been holding onto all his life, “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”
4. Shel Silverstein
Tall, bald, and sporting a jet black beard, Shel Silverstein’s image peers out from the back cover of his children’s books with a furrowed brow, his image defying the idea that children’s authors are sweet and wholesome in every way. He first made a name for himself with The Giving Tree, then went on to publish 11 more children’s books including Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic. What made Silverstein’s poems fun for children is the idea that mischief is funny, which didn’t often sit well with parents. A Light in the Attic was taken to task for glorifying “Satan, suicide, and cannibalism.”
But it was his career entertaining adults that really brought controversy to Silverstein’s life. It’s well known that he wrote for Playboy, but his main contribution to the world of smut was as a musician. He released a studio album called Freakin’ at the Freaker’s Ball in 1969, with songs talking about group sex, kink, fascism, pornography, heroin, and sadomasochistic drag balls. It’s a gravely voiced trip into the mind of a man who didn’t just reserve humor for the kids.
3. Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel
The creator of such childhood classics as The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hears a Who, and The Grinch was not without scandal either. Long before he got his start as an author, he got into some trouble for bootlegging gin at Dartmouth. As punishment he was banned from participating in The Jack-o-Lantern, the college’s humor magazine, which led directly to him beginning to publish for the magazine under the pen name “Seuss.”
Seuss would go on the publish his first children’s book, And to Think That It Happened on Mulberry Street, in 1937. But as Seuss was basically a typical frat boy, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his first published books were basically just penis jokes. The first was called Boners, followed up by Still More Boners, and both were picture books with oddball jokes about sausages and hookers.
He had a tumultuous personal life as well, engaging in an extramarital affair at age 64 with a married woman nearly 20 years his junior. In the wake of the affair, Mrs. Geisel committed suicide out of shame and embarrassment, and rather than mourning he promptly married his mistress and sent her kids off to boarding school. Keep an eye out for our new biography on Dr. Seuss, Horton Smells a Maury Povich Episode.
2. J.K. Rowling
Thanks to Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling will go down as one of the most successful writers of all-time. That hasn’t stopped her rabid fanbase from bristling when she revealed that Albus Dumbledore was gay, however. When this fact was revealed Rowling was met with backlash that she confronted head on, taking to Twitter to defend her fictional character and his sexuality. And we won’t even begin to dive into the numerous charges of plagiarism she faced after the success of her transcendent series.
With children’s stories seemingly out of her system, in 2012 she released an adult novel called A Casual Vacancy, a work of fiction about a teenager who lives with her heroin addicted mother. The novel addresses drug addiction, sex, and violence, with lots of swearing and graphic imagery. Needless to say, it was not exactly the follow up expected by those who admired the uplifting world of the heroic boy wizard.
1. Tomi Ungerer
Tomi Ungerer is unique as a children’s author not because of his work, which includes The Mellops Go Flying and The Three Robbers, but because of his banishment from the community of children’s writers for almost 40 years. Like many of the authors on this list, Ungerer worked as a writer and illustrator of adult literature, and while his children’s stories had occasionally distasteful elements it was his adult work that led to his books being banned from libraries across America.
Tomi never worked exclusively in works for children, having illustrated political posters at the beginning of his career before venturing into erotica. His erotic illustrations were more adventurous than the vanilla illustrations found in Playboy at the time, featuring explicit images of people engaged in bondage and sex with pleasure machines.
During a Q&A with the American Library Association, Ungerer was attacked and subsequently blacklisted from all American libraries. In 1971 he absconded to Ireland, where he worked and lived for the next four decades. It wasn’t until 2008 that his work returned to an American audience, as his children’s stories started getting republished and introduced to an entirely new, and more open, generation.