As new parents and anyone who’s ever gone rummaging through their old childhood libraries quickly realises, much of the best literature for kids is bonkers. It all makes divine sense when you’re four or five or 10, but return as an adult to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Cat in the Hat, and what’s striking is that so much sublime whimsy and exuberant creativity could have been conjured up by our fellow grownups.
Eloise had been an imaginary friend of author Kay Thompson since childhood
Then again, there’s a theory that children’s authors – the best of them, at any rate – never really grow up. Lewis Carroll famously – notoriously from today’s perspective – preferred playing games with children to adult conversation. Kenneth Grahame amassed a vast collection of toys – in his 20s. And Dodie Smith, a fascinating writer best known today for her children’s novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians, used to say she never felt quite grown up. (At under five feet tall and with a high-pitched, perpetually girlish voice, she perhaps had more excuse than most.)
There’s no arguing that the behaviour of certain of these writers makes their whippersnapper protagonists look good as gold. Take night club entertainer and Eloise author, Kay Thompson. She was, by all accounts, a difficult woman to work with. Hilary Knight, Eloise’s illustrator, finally threw in the towel after Thompson seized his hand in an attempt to direct his pencil. A fondness for flouncing off saw her quit everything from a role in The Pink Panther (she hated her costume) to a gig concocting a fragrance for Tiffany’s (she had “the mind of a grasshopper”, one of the company’s executives despaired).
The way publicists spun it, Eloise sprang spontaneously to life when, late for a rehearsal of her act with the Williams Brothers, the ordinarily punctual Thompson apologised in a child’s voice. “Who are you, little girl?” someone asked, to which Thompson replied, “I am Eloise. I am 6.” It became a rehearsal game, then a one-woman show at the Plaza in Manhattan, and finally, in 1955, a book. But according to biographer Sam Irvin, Eloise had been with Thompson since childhood, an imaginary friend whose voice she’d channelled all her life. When a made-for-TV film first started shooting, Thompson would hide under a table on set and voice Eloise’s part herself, making the child actor cover her mouth with a book.
Were she not an author, psychiatrists might have had something to say about all this. That she later became addicted to amphetamines and was shockingly thin suggests her ornery flightiness was symptomatic of something altogether darker. But what was obnoxious and ultimately tedious in a grown woman was sassy in a small girl. The destructiveness, the wilfulness, the caprice – it’s all part of why Eloise is so beloved. No prizes for guessing Thompson’s reply when asked about the inspiration for her heroine: “Eloise is me! All me.”
Kenneth Grahame’s courtship was conducted via letters written in babyspeak
Children’s literature is chock-a-block with contenders for authors most like their creations. Theodor Geisel, aka Dr Seuss, dealt with writer’s block by ducking into a secret cupboard, hidden behind a bookcase, in which he kept a vast array of hats. Edward Gorey might easily have slipped from one of the frames of his own illustrations, fond as he was of floor-length furs and long scarves. These he paired with jeans and trainers, reminding us that while surreally macabre (he didn’t like the word), his work was also pungently humorous.
Though children loved his books, Gorey didn’t return their enthusiasm. Another thing that seemed not to register in the otherwise broad beam of his curiosity (he loved everything from ballet to TV soaps) was romantic relationships. Indeed, he once claimed not to know whether he was gay or straight. He may not have been reclusive but he was certainly solitary in his later years, and when he died in 2000, he left most of his estate to a charity for animals, including bats and insects.
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Hephzibah Anderson graduated from Cambridge University with an English degree and has worked as a journalist ever since. She was the fiction editor at the Daily Mail and covered fiction for the Observer. Her recent work has appeared in Vogue and Bloomberg Muse and on BBC Radio.To learn more about her and her work, please click here.