Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are, among other children’s classics, died Tuesday, May 8, 2012, in Danbury, Conn., at the age of 83. American Profile included his work in our Aug. 30, 2009, cover story, below.
Long before cable television and computer games, children of the baby boom generation entertained themselves with—and lost themselves in—books such as Charlotte’s Web, The Cat in the Hat and The Giving Tree.
“Immediately after World War II, the top-selling books were on simpler subjects, getting back to normal,” says Barbara Crossland, 62, who teaches children’s literature at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville (pop. 10,581). “But by the end of the baby boomer period, socially conscious books were published to make the world better.”
Here’s a look back at 10 of the best-selling books published between 1946 and 1964.
The Littlest Angel
by Charles Tazewell,
illustrated by Katherine Evans
Children’s Press Inc., 1946
Charles Tazewell’s first love was acting; he appeared on Broadway in New York in the 1920s. But when the Great Depression hit, Tazewell took a job writing scripts for CBS radio. The Littlest Angel was a script he wrote for Christmas in 1939. Children can relate to the story’s main character, a homesick, angel boy who brings a gift to baby Jesus that God turns into the star of Bethlehem. The story was read over the airwaves by actress Edna Best in 1940, featured in Coronet magazine in 1949, and ultimately became one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. The Littlest Angel has been revised and reissued more than 50 times, retaining much of the original flowery language while creating up-to-date illustrations.
by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd
Harper & Row, 1947
Comfort and safety are portrayed in the words and illustrations of this beloved bedtime book in which a pajama-clad rabbit says goodnight to everyday items he can see from his bed, including the glowing moon. Margaret Wise Brown, who worked as a teacher when she began writing, said she woke up with a “head full of stories” that she developed into dozens of children’s books.
Misty of Chincoteague
by Marguerite Henry, illustrated by Wesley Dennis
Rand McNally, 1947
In 1946, when Marguerite Henry was looking for material to write a book, she traveled to the island of Chincoteague off the Virginia coast. When she learned of a herd of wild ponies on the neighboring island, Assateague, Henry discovered a real-life story about a brother and sister, Paul and Maureen Beebe, who longed to own a pony. During an annual pony roundup, Paul captures a wild mare, Phantom, who can’t keep up with the herd because she has given birth to a colt, Misty. Henry actually bought Misty in 1946 and the pony accompanied the author to book readings and signings at schools, museums and libraries for 10 years.
Where the Wild Things Are
by Maurice Sendak
Harper & Row, 1963
In Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak tells the story of Max, a mischievous boy, dressed in a wolf costume, whose mother sends him to bed without supper. In his room, Max imagines traveling to a land of wild things where he conquers fearsome monsters and is crowned king of all wild things. When Max becomes homesick, he returns to his room to find his hot supper waiting. Interestingly, because Sendak was a sickly child, he often spent time indoors in bed in his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment, devoting time to reading and drawing. As an author, he came to believe that children overcome fear and anxiety through fantasy.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
by C.S. Lewis, illustrated by Pauline Baynes
In this classic, four children discover the magical land of Narnia when they step through a wardrobe while living in a large house on the English countryside during World War II. Irish-born C.S Lewis said his vision of Narnia began with a picture in his mind of a fauna half-man, half-goat creature carrying an umbrella in a snow-laden forest. Lewis set out to write about the heroic characters found in mythical stories, but his Christian beliefs are revealed in characters such as the lion, Aslan, who comes back to life like Jesus Christ. This great fantasy adventure, part of a seven-book series, became a box-office hit in 2005.
by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams
Harper & Row, 1952
E.B. White lived on a farm in Maine when he wrote this fantasy featuring talking barnyard animals and insects. White studied spiders for a year before writing about one named Charlotte. In Charlotte’s Web, a young girl, Fern, convinces her father not to kill the runt of a pig litter and names the piglet Wilbur. As Wilbur grows fat enough for slaughter, Charlotte saves him by spinning words of praise, which are read by the farmer. Charlotte’s Web was made into a cartoon musical in 1973 and a full-length movie in 2006.
by Kay Thompson, illustrated by Hilary Knight
Simon & Schuster, 1955
Although Kay Thompson was a dancer, singer, composer and choreographer, she is best remembered as the author of Eloise. Thompson created the character of Eloise while entertaining fellow performers during rehearsals. Friends would tell Thompson, “I don’t want to talk to you. I want to talk to Eloise.” Her series of books featured a rich, meddling 6-year-old who lives in the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Thompson actually lived in the Plaza Hotel for three months while she wrote Eloise.
The Cat in the Hat
by Dr. Seuss
Random House, 1957
In the mid-1950s, Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was asked to write a book for school children using a limited vocabulary list so it would be easy to read, but more interesting than the “Dick and Jane” series used in schools at the time. The author devoted more than a year to perfect the book, which was marketed both to schools and bookstores. The book didn’t sell well to schools, but children loved the humorous rhyming story and imaginative illustrations. Dr. Seuss, whose first book was rejected more than 20 times, eventually wrote a string of bestsellers, including Horton Hears a Who! and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
Are You My Mother?
by P.D. Eastman
Random House, 1960
Children sense a certain urgency when they hear this story about a baby bird that hatches and falls from its nest while its mother is looking for worms for her newborn. The baby bird goes on a quest to find its mother, asking each animal and object he finds, “Are you my mother?” Eventually the hatchling asks a steam shovel, who scoops him up and places him back in his nest just in time for his mother’s return. P.D. Eastman worked for Walt Disney Productions and Warner Bros. Cartoons before he became a children’s book author and illustrator.
The Giving Tree
by Shel Silverstein
Harper & Row, 1964
The Giving Tree is a moral tale about the relationship between a boy and an apple tree. When the boy is young, the tree gives him a place to play, fruit to snack on and shade to sleep under. When the boy becomes a man, he takes the tree’s apples to sell, her branches for a house, her trunk for a boat, and ultimately is left with her stump to sit upon. “I never planned to write or draw for kids,” said multi-talented Shel Silverstein, who worked as cartoonist, composer and poet.