10 things you didn't know about your favourite childhood authors

Ian investigates the personal lives of some of his favourite childhood authors — and uncovers some surprising facts.

Photo: diego_cervo/iStockphoto

If you’re anything like me, you probably spend a lot of time reading with your kids.

Our bookshelves are overflowing with some of the best children’s books for young readers. But the other day, I realized that I didn’t really know anything about the authors who wrote these books.

This thought came to me as the slightly-creepy picture of Shel Silverstein was staring at me from the back cover of one of his books. I decided to hit the Internet to research a little bit about Silverstein’s life and I was absolutely stunned to learn that he used to be a prominent writer and illustrator for an adult magazine.

After doing a little more digging on the web, I found out that some of our favourite children’s authors have fascinating back stories. So this week, I thought it would be fun to write about things you probably didn’t know about 10 of your favourite children’s authors:

1. Shel Silverstein
Long before he became one of the most well-known children’s authors, Silverstein’s career started in the most unusual place: Playboy magazine. In the early years of the adult magazine, Silverstein contributed a regular comic strip that was anything but kid-friendly. And he was so tight with Hugh Hefner that he reportedly lived at the Playboy Mansion in California at various times.

2. Dr. Seuss
His first wife Helen was battling cancer and committed suicide in 1967 after learning that Dr. Seuss was having an affair while she was ill. Dr. Seuss then ended up marrying his mistress Audrey Stone Dimond a few months after his wife had killed herself. In a New York Times article from November of 2000 — which details the affair and suicide — Audrey says that she and Dr. Seuss never had any kids together after his first wife died. Dr. Seuss would tell people his philosophy on children was simple: “You have ‘em and I’ll entertain them.”

3. H.A. Rey
H.A. Rey and his wife Margaret are best known as the authors and illustrators of the Curious George series of books. The couple had lived in Paris during the outbreak of the Second World War and knew their Jewish heritage put them at risk when the Nazis started taking control over Europe. So, on the morning of June 14, 1940, Rey cobbled together two bicycles made out of spare parts and he and his wife fled Paris with just a few possessions — which included an illustrated manuscript for Curious George. A few hours later, the Nazis entered Paris and took over the city. The couple rode their bikes for four days until they reached the border of France and Spain. They sold their bikes for train fares and eventually made it all the way to New York City where they started their lives as authors.

4. Robert Munsch
In May of 2010, Munsch admitted to the world that he battled a cocaine and alcohol addiction. In a blog entry titled “A Note To Parents” on his website Munsch wrote that he was diagnosed as manic depressive and obsessive compulsive — conditions that led him to make “big mistakes in my life.”

5. Maurice Sednak
The author of Where The Wild Things Are did not tell anybody he was gay, for fear that it would hurt his career as a children’s author. He lived with his partner for 50 years and never told his parents he was gay. In a New York Times article from 2008, he was quoted as saying, “All I wanted was to be straight so that my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”

6. Roald Dahl
Before becoming a children’s author, Roald Dahl served as a pilot in the British Royal Air Force during the Second World War. In September of 1940, Dahl’s plane crashed as he was attempting to land in the Egyptian desert during a training exercise. He suffered a fractured skull and was temporarily blinded in the crash. In a 2010 Daily Telegraph article titled, “The plane crash that gave birth to a writer”, the journalist describes how Dahl was convinced that the crash led directly to him becoming a writer. He always suspected the brain injuries he suffered in the accident altered his personality and made him more inclined to be a creative writer. Many of his early works — including James and the Giant Peach — included themes that were tied to flying.

7. Judy Blume
Blume says that she created a lot of the characters for her books in her head when she was growing up. According to her official website, young Judy would give piano lessons to imaginary students inside her house. She even kept a notebook with the names of the fake students to track their progress.

8. J.K. Rowling
During a commencement speech at Harvard in 2008, Rowling acknowledged her financial hardships before she struck gold with the Harry Potter franchise. She was forced to sign up for welfare benefits and was on the verge of being homeless. She told the graduating class at Harvard that “poverty entails fear and stress and sometimes depression. It means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships.” Recently, she has been listed as one of the 12 richest women in the United Kingdom and her fortune is estimated to be worth close to $1 billion.

9.  Beverly Cleary
In her autobiography, Cleary wrote that she didn’t learn to read until grade three — thanks in large part to a string of poor teachers in her early years. Ironically enough, her birthday — April 12 — is recognized as National Drop Everything and Read Day (D.E.A.R), in promotion of sustained silent reading.

10. Stan and Jan Berenstain
The Berenstain Bears have delighted kids for almost 50 years, creating one of the strongest franchises in North America. The books were created by Stan and Jan, who actually met each other on the first day of school at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. According to the Washington Post, a young Stan and Jan would often go to the zoo during their classes and draw pictures of bears as part of their school work. And while many people believe their books are deep-rooted in religious beliefs, it’s worth noting that Stan Berenstain was Jewish, while his wife Jan was Episcopalian.

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