Having Read: Three Biographies of Children’s Book Authors.

I’ve been trying to do as much (non-research) reading as possible lately--it makes me a better person. I’ve always loved reading artist biographies. It’s been a downward spiral over the last few months though. I read three recently: one about Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, one about Shel Silverstein, and one about Tomie DePaola. Each one worse than the one before.

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (2012) by Philip Nel is one of the greatest biographies I’ve ever read. I received this book for christmas from Kristie’s uncle a few years ago (thanks Robert!). It was so thoroughly and lovingly researched, I can hardly express how much I appreciated this book. An inspiration on a variety of levels. It makes be want to write biographies. It’s one of very few books that caused me to write the author a note. I’m a slow reader (usually keeping a variety of books in play for years) so it took me a year to read. I told him that it was tough letting go of Krauss and Johnson after spending a year with them. He said he spent 12 years researching/writing so he knew how I felt. The book is thorough, insightful, and well-written. More of a scholarly work than an over-the-counter biography. This is the only one of the three books that I didn’t have to look up the biographer’s name. Obviously I love Crockett Johnson, but I only knew a little about Krauss before this book. I’m not even inclined to mention the content, only the extoll the excellence of the writing. That’s how great this book was to read.

I then read A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein (2009) by Lisa Rogak right after the Johnson/Krauss one. I had it for a few years before picking it up to read. I found it at a used bookstore (one of those that dump old library books at Outlet Malls). I put it next to our nearly complete set of Silverstein books where it sat for a while. I honestly read it because I was so hyped after reading Krauss/Johnson, so I have to admit how biased my perception of this book was when I got to it. While reading it I became so disappointed because I truly love the subject (Silverstein is a personal favorite) and my expectations were soaring after reading the Krauss/Johnson. This isn’t a bad book -- I just get the feeling that she couldn’t find as many sources as she wanted (certainly not as many as would elevate the book to an exceptional status). Also, I mostly think of Silverstein as an author and Rogak seems mostly interested in the music side of his career. That might very well be the truth of the subject: he was a musician who made books on the side. I enjoyed learning more about his life, though it always seemed biased. The bio even seems defensive or excusatory at times, which was off-putting. I realize that biographers depend heavily on access and permission--things that the Silverstein estate notoriously protect. I am reminded of the David Michaelis book on Charles Schulz, where he reportedly betrayed the trust of the family after falsely presenting the nature of his biography (writing about things that the family did not like).

I just finished reading Tomie DePaula: His Art and His Stories (1999) by Barbara Elleman. This book disappointed me so much more than A Boy Named Shel. It wasn’t a biography by any stretch of the imagination. I didn’t know much about DePaula (still don’t after reading this book), but we have several of his children’s books. I love the way he draws and how he tells his stories. After inadvertently amassing a few of them because we liked the art, I began to notice his name and seek him out. We pick up his books at thrift stores, yard sales, and library sales.In fact, the latter is where I found this biography. The book is mostly an extended description of each of his books. It read more like a collection of reviews than evidence of any sort of significant research. The point of view is only that of the author, who describes each picture each line with only a shallow understanding of the subject. I do not mean to poo-poo this book (I desperately try to teach my students not to be assholes), but my interests are scholarly and research-driven.

One day I will write a biography of some cartoonist. I have several subjects in mind, but the time is long to come. I will strive toward the mark set by the Krauss/Johnson book, but will likely fall somewhere closer to A Boy Named Shel, which is nothing to be ashamed of--just nothing to be too boastful about. I am for certain that I will at least do more than the DePaula book.

I do not know if I should stop reading biographies for fear that the next one will suck even more, or if I should find one to redeem the genre for me. I’m tempted to re-read a biography of Edward Gorey (Ascending Peculiarity) that I read years ago, but can’t recall much about it. We have a few Jim Henson books around I could read, I guess. If anyone has a suggestion, please let me know.

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