[This is one of a series of posts in which we are sharing stories from our upcoming book (Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature) that were cut from the original manuscript.]
“I have sometimes been more envious of the book dedication than the book itself!” That’s author Dia Calhoun commenting upon that spare, economically-worded (if you’re lucky) piece of poetry called a book’s dedication. Before the story even begins, an author and illustrator have the opportunity to give a shout-out to the person—or, in some cases, people—to whom they dedicate their published product. Behind some of children’s literature’s dedications are surprising delights, tender tales, or just whacked-out ridiculousness.
Probably the average person on the street is aware of children’s literature’s most famous dedication: Alice Liddell, the young girl to whom Lewis Carroll dedicated his Alice books. Or perhaps it should be infamous, since the nature of his relationship with Alice has come under severe scrutiny in the 20th and 21st century. Charles Dodgson, who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll, served as dean of Christ’s Church, Oxford, when he was invited to dinner at the home of Henry Liddell, a professor of mathematics. It was there that he met Liddell’s three children, Lorina, Alice, and Edith, and initially concocted the Alice tale for them on a rowboat excursion on the Thames River, along with the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, naming the protagonist after the middle Liddell child. (In the name of slipping beloved friends into one’s work, you will see in chapter three of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that Alice appears as the protagonist; Dodgson as the dodo; the Reverend as the duck; Lorina as the lory; and Edith as the eaglet.)
Where things get unclear is when the young Alice became the subject of Liddell’s photography, as many other young girls at that time did. Then his relationship with Alice came to a grinding halt when Mrs. Liddell forbade contact between him and her children, something about which she never spoke in a public manner. After his death, Dodgson’s heirs ripped out the pages of his diary, as was the custom; this certainly would have provided further explanation on this time period, though other theories abound as to what those pages contain.
As a result, the dedication to the first book reads, “Alice! A childish story take, / And, with a gentle hand, / Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined / In Memory’s mystic band…” while the dedication to the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, reads “No thought of me shall find a place / In thy young life’s hereafter….”
Now, to lighten the mood considerably, we turn from the cryptic and serious to the goofy. You know that any dedication like the following has to come from none other than author Dav Pilkey: “For Buttercup Gizzardsniffer, with love.” That comes straight from Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants. In the book, Professor Poop displays a chart to change a normal name into a goof-tastic name. Using that chart, you can figure out who Buttercup Gizzardsniffer actually was.
What’s that? You’re too embarrassed to be seen looking at the book? Okay, we can provide some hints: Children’s book writer. Newbery winner. Missing May.
Figure it out yet?
If we want to take a U-turn back to the cryptic, there’s always Lemony Snicket and his dedications, meant to intrigue and confound us.
“To Beatrice. Darling, dearest, dead.” These words at the beginning of A Series of Unfortunate Events comprise one of the most startling book dedications in recent memory. And it didn’t end there. Subsequent volumes contained many dedications to the ill-fated Beatrice, dedications all at once provocative, scary, and funny. Some are listed here:
For Beatrice. I would much prefer it if you were alive and well.
For Beatrice. You will always be in my heart, in my mind, and in your grave.
For Beatrice. When we met, my life began. Soon after, yours ended.
For Beatrice. When we were together I felt breathless. Now you are.
For Beatrice. Our love broke my heart, and stopped yours.
For Beatrice. When we first met, I was lonely, and you were pretty. Now I am pretty lonely.
For Beatrice. No one could extinguish my love. Or your house.
The story of Beatrice is intertwined with the tale of the Baudelaire children in the Snicket series. Lemony Snicket, readers soon discover, had proposed in his younger days to the mother of the Baudelaire orphans featured in the book series (married to Bertrand Baudelaire and killed in a fire set in her home while her children were away). However, she refused the proposal and returned the ring that he offered her, eventually sending the dejected Snicket a lengthy book explaining her reasons for turning him down. Of course, Beatrice Baudelaire is not to be confused with Beatrice Snicket.
Confused? You mean you haven’t read the series yet?
Author Cynthia Leitich Smith burst into tears when she read Kathi Appelt’s dedication of the The Underneath, 2008 National Book Award Finalist, Young People’s Literature, to her and her husband Greg, also an author. Appelt had been Cynthia’s original writing teacher, and Smith had taken private classes with a group of other students at Kathi’s family ranch. Years later, when Cynthia was leading a class of her own, she mentioned WriteFest to Kathi, an elaborate, four-day, full-novel workshop at Cynthia’s own home with the goal of moving writers out of their creative and social comfort zones. Cynthia invited participants on the condition that they tell no one else about the workshop, and she assigned code names to participants before asking them to read two full manuscripts from the group. The group engaged in critiques and readings and assigned homework. “We took them on field trips to pick out soundtracks for their movie deals ($20 and 20 minutes—go!), character totems ($30 and 30 minutes—go!), and even fully decked character costumes ($40 and 40 minutes—go!),” Cynthia told us. “Of course Kathi wanted to come, but she’d never written a novel. (We all knew it was just in there waiting, but she’d kept putting it off.) I told her she couldn’t come without a novel manuscript—that was the whole point of the event. Her ears started steaming, and she got that adorable look on her face where she clearly wants to kill me. In the end, though, we all got to hear that first animal point-of-view scene in the dining room, and it was the crowning moment of the workshop.”
Maurice Sendak’s Pierre, published as one of the four books of his 1962 Nutshell Library, is the only title of the quartet that includes no dedication to any of his friends. Pierre, writes Selma G. Lanes, is closest to Sendak’s heart, and the absence of any names in the “to” spot may very well be indicative of a dedication to his own self.
And, in the category of Noteworthy Dedications of Children’s Literature, the winners are …
MOST ABSENCE-MAKES-THE-HEART-GROW-FONDER: Mary Rodgers, most famously known for 1972’s Freaky Friday, began the very funny A Billion for Boris with: “This book is dedicated to my small sons, Adam and Alec, without whom I was finally able to finish it.” One of those sons, Adam Guettel, grew up to become a theatre composer who wrote the music and lyrics of Floyd Collins and won a Tony for A Light in the Piazza. It must be in the genes, because Mary, the daughter of Richard Rodgers of Rogers and Hammerstein, wrote the lyrics for Once Upon a Mattress.
MOST NOW-AIN’T-THAT-THE-TRUTH: In How Angel Peterson Got His Name: And Other Outrageous Tales About Extreme Sports, Gary Paulsen describes some of the more foolhardy adventures he and his friends experienced as kids, such as trying to set a speed record on waxed skates. Or going over a waterfall in a barrel. Or…well, we’re not even going to say what they did with the electric fence, except to say it caused them to walk funny for a while. No wonder the first page says that the book is “dedicated to all boys in their thirteenth year; the miracle is that we live through it.”
MOST “AWWWW!”-INDUCING: It’s a three-way tie! David Shannon dedicated his picture book No, David! to “Martha, my mother, who kept me in line then, and to Heidi, my wife, who keeps me in line now.” Yet, in A. A. Milne’s dedication to his wife, Daphne, in Winnie-the-Pooh, he writes in “To Her”: “Hand in hand we come / Christopher Robin and I / To lay this book in your lap. / Say you’re surprised? / Say you like it? / Say it’s just what you wanted? / Because it’s yours— / Because we love you.” Finally, the protagonist of John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines is a bit obsessed with anagrams (to put it mildly). For the novel’s dedication, Green anagrammed his wife’s name (Sarah Urist Green): “Her great Russian / Grin has treasure– / A great risen rush. / She is a rut-ranger; / Anguish arrester; / Sister; haranguer; / Treasure-sharing, / Heart-reassuring / Signature Sharer / Easing rare hurts.”
MOST IT’S-ABOUT-TIME-ALREADY: Patricia MacLachlan pays tribute to a friend and fellow children’s book writer in this dedication for The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt: “Once I told a class of Natalie Babbitt’s that she had inspired and encouraged me as a writer, as a friend. ‘Why, then,’ said Natalie crisply (joking, of course), ‘haven’t you ever dedicated a book to me?’ Well, this is it, with deep affection. To Nat from Pat.”
MOST HUBBA-WHA?-NOW-RUN-THAT-BY-ME-AGAIN? The dedications of Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson’s young adult novels, as mysterious and eccentric as the narratives she concocts, will leave you scratching your head. One such example from A Fast and Brutal Wing? “seedcake for my rainbow actor, / my handed crow./ always.”
MOST HEARTBREAKING: In Dayal Kaur Khalsa’s Cowboy Dreams, the author-illustrator reminisces about growing up as a cowboy-lovin’ little girl, who called her bicycle “Old Paint” and wanted to convert the family garage into a stable. At the time she wrote the book, Ms. Khalsa was dying of cancer. Published posthumously, it carries this dedication: “To All My Old, Old Saddle Pals, / There’s hardly a trail we didn’t roam, / But the sun is setting in the West, / And it’s time for me to head on home.”
MOST CONVERTED:“I find dedications pretty silly to begin with,” author/illustrator Elisha Cooper told us, “which is why I have dedicated books to my goats, my desk, my cleats, or a beach in Chicago. Lately, though, my daughters have wanted books dedicated to them, and how could I say no to my daughters? I suppose I’ve become more traditional.”
MOST UNNECESSARILY CONTROVERSIAL: For Wendy Wahman’s 2011 picture book, A Cat Like That, the dedication is to her late cat. Initially, her editor had nixed the words “black” and “god.” “I guess those are on the no-say list for youngster books,” Wendy told us. An editor’s assistant found nothing from which to take exception, and the dedication now reads just as Wendy wrote it, “which makes me happy, since it’s truly a phrase I would say to Olif. I called him, among other titles, my ‘small black god with a tremendous intellect.’”
MOST SIMPLY-CANNOT-BE-TOPPED: Author/illustrator Barbara McClintock brought to our attention her favorite dedication of all from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “NOTICE: Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G. G., CHIEF OF ORDNANCE.”
MOST WISHING-FOR-A-WAYBACK-MACHINE:Illustrator Tricia Tusa tells us, “sometimes I read my own dedications from long ago and wonder, ‘huh?’”
MOST REALISTIC: Author Dia Calhoun points out the true challenges of a well-penned dedication: “All my poor husband gets is the plain old unimaginative, ‘For Shawn.’ I don’t let him read the wonderful ones for fear he might leave me for another, wittier author.” Sometimes, though, there is perfection in simplicity. And getting right to the point.
MOST OPPOSITE OF DIA CALHOUN: YA author Michael Cadnam’s many dedications to his wife read like lines from an ongoing love poem: “For Sherina: Tide so high our boats part the treetops” (from The Leopard Sword); “For Sherina: One deer-print beside the shivering pool” (from Starfall); and “For Sherina: Quietly – there are doves” (from Taking It). Is each dedication a separate epigram, or are they all part of a longer poem? We don’t know. All we know is that true romantics can look forward to reading each new Michael Cadnum book – and, with each new volume, eavesdropping on his romance with Sherina.
BONUS: Peter once wrote at his site (back in 2008) about a post-dedication mystery. Since, sadly, he’s no longer with us, I suppose this one may never be cracked. That story is here.
Biography: Adam Guettel.” American Theatre Wing. December, 2007. Web. 25 January 2011. <http://americantheatrewing.org/biography/detail/adam_guettel>.
Cadnum, Michael. The Leopard Sword. New York: Viking, 2002.
Cadnum, Michael. Starfall: Phaeton and the Chariot of the Sun. New York: Orchard Books, 2004.
Cadnum, Michael. Taking It. New York: Viking, 1995.
Calhoun, Dia. Email interview. 26 August 2009.
Cooper, Elisha. Email interview. 14 September 2009
Green, John. An Abudance of Katherines. New York: Dutton Books, 2006.
Johnson, Kathleen Jeffrie. A Fast and Brutal Wing. Brookfield, Connecticut: Roaring Brook Press, 2004.
Khalsa, Dayal Kaur. Cowboy Dreams.New York: C.N. Potter, 1990.
Lanes, Selma G. The Art of Maurice Sendak. New York: Abradale Press/Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1980.
MacLachlan, Patricia. The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Milne, A. A. The Complete Tales & Poems of Winnie-the-Pooh. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1996.
Paulsen, Gary. How Angel Peterson Got His Name: And Other Outrageous Tales About Extreme Sports. New York: Wendy Lamb Books, 2003.
Pilkey, Dav. Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants. New York: Blue Sky Press, 2000.
Rodgers, Mary. A Billion for Boris. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Shannon, David. No, David!New York: Blue Sky Press, 1998.
Silvey, Anita, ed. Children’s Books and Their Creators. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Smith, Cynthia Leitich. Email interview. 1 September 2009.
Snicket, Lemony. The Complete Wreck: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Books 1-13. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Tusa, Tricia. Email interview. 4 October 2010.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Morrow, 1994.
Wagman-Geller, Marlene. Once Again to Zelda: The Stories Behind Literature’s Most Intriguing Dedications. New York: Penguin, 2008.
Wahman, Wendy. Email interview. 6 September 2010.