Learn Everything You Need to Know!

          What made Jay Leno crave an audience?  What lesson did Steve Forbes learn early and never forget? What influenced Steve Wozniak?  

          Children’s literature specialist Anita Silvey conducted interviews with these three and over 100 other people in the arts, business, and sciences to discover what inspired and influenced them as children.  The result is her new book, “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book, Life Lessons from Notable People from All Walks of Life.”


          Some of the titles are surprising.  “Poppy Ott and the Galloping Snail” by Leo Edwards is an obscure series book from the 1930s that influenced both children’s writer Betsy Byars and comic-book master Stan Lee.  Both mention how Edwards encouraged readers to contact him (Byars even joined his club, The Secret and Mysterious Order of the Freckled Goldfish), showing them the importance of communicating with fans.

Pete Seeger points to Ernest Thompson Seton’s “Rolf in the Woods” for inspiring him to build his own teepee and make a bed out of spruce branches.  His love of the outdoors has endured ever since.

          Even when the books mentioned seem predictable – Anne Frank’s “Diary of a Young Girl,” “The Secret Garden” – the reasons each person gives offer tantalizing insights into their personalities.  Writer Anna Quindlen empathized with Anne Frank, another adolescent whose life was “trapped in a close net of family, friends, and constant scrutiny.”  For scientist Steven Pinker,”The Cat in the Hat Comes Back” was not only a relief from the “dull, dull, Dick-and-Jane readers,” but prompted him to think about nested sets, infinitesimals, and Zeno’s paradox.  Who knew?

          Children’s writers and illustrators point to their own influences, ranging from “The Tailor of Gloucester” (Beverly Cleary) to “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” (Ann M. Martin).  Jon Scieszka celebrates “Go, Dog. Go!” as a “book about dogs driving around in cars who finally meet up in a tree for a party.” He found it much more real than the Dick and Jane books he’d been forced to read up until then.  Surely the hilarity Scieszka enjoyed in P.D. Eastman’s book has influenced his own wild and wacky picture books.

          Readers who want more behind-the-scenes looks at authors and illustrators can turn to Leonard Marcus’s many volumes of interviews with children’s book creators.  Adults will enjoy “Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon” and “Dear Genius: the Letters of Ursula Nordstrom,” portraits of an author and an editor known for their charisma and influence.

          For children, Marcus has compiled two books about picture book creators, “Side By Side” and “Pass it Down,” both profiling artists who collaborate on their books.  Author Julius Lester and illustrator Jerry Pinkney tell how their ground-breaking new edition of the controversial picture book, “Little Black Sambo,” came about. Excerpts from numerous drafts show kids how even the greatest need to revise, revise, revise. Jon Scieszka comments on his collaboration with Lane Smith and Molly Leach on “The Stinky Cheese Man,” saying “Doing humor is like ditch digging!  You do it over and over again until you get to the bottom of the thing.”  Lizzy Rockwell talks about entering the family business when she finished the artwork for a picture book started by her late father, Harlow.  Children nine and up and interested adults will learn, if not everything, quite a bit from these children’s books.

 First published in the Free Lance-Star on March 9, 2010.