This isn’t quite like the time Sammy Davis, Jr. landed one on Archie Bunker, but it’s close. Neil Gaiman’s Sutherland Lecture–“What the @#$%&*! Is a Children’s Book, Anyway?”– was a big sold-out success, and we’ll be bringing it to you this fall in the Horn Book Magazine. Meanwhile, I thought I would share my introduction.
Here in the children’s book world, we tend to regard strangers with suspicion. By “children’s book world” I mean children’s librarians, children’s book publishers, teachers, writers, and artists. I mean many of the people in this room as well as the spirits of those who have gone before, like our own Zena Sutherland, and Neil Gaiman’s friend Diana Wynne Jones, all the great ladies and gentlemen whose work in this world continues beyond their passing.
By “strangers” I mean a couple of things. We are protective of children’s books, as we are protective of children. Sometimes, the children do not like this, when we seek to protect them—and/or ourselves—from interlopers like television or, back in the day, Nancy Drew and comic books. Such media were hardly strangers to children but we would do our best to keep them outside our gates. Even Zena, probably the least tightly corseted of her generation of great library ladies, taught us at the University of Chicago that while there was nothing really wrong with comic books, not one dime of a library’s money should be spent on them. That money and our professional attention were to be devoted to real and good children’s books, preferably those recommended by her Bulletin.
What we used to refer to (with a straight face, if you can believe it) as sub-literature is one stranger we’d like to turn away; another is the celebrity author. Yes, of course, we have our own celebrity authors, many of whom have graced this lecture series, starting with Maurice Sendak as the first Sutherland lecturer back in 1983. But I’m talking about those celebrities who are celebrities for something else: singers, models, stars of reality TV shows. Or those celebrities who are genuine authors justly renowned for another kind of writing, but whose brains go on vacation when the prospect of a children’s book is dangled before them. As if nothing could be simpler. When Frederick Melcher established the Newbery Medal in 1921 in part as a way to lure respected adult writers into writing for children, surely he did not have in mind Toni Morrison’s Peeny Butter Fudge.
So what are we to do with Neil Gaiman, author of bestselling adult novels AND comic books for years before his first novel for children, Coraline, was published in 2002? Perhaps already a legend in some circles, how would this interloper fare with our notoriously demanding crowd? Would we kick the pup to the curb?
Not a bit of it. Coraline was neither dismissed as arriviste trash nor greeted with starstruck rapture; instead, we did something better: we took it seriously. This gothic tale of a girl who finds herself in a frightening mirror-world was unsettling, certainly, but for all the right reasons. The terrors of the book—eyes made from buttons, a disembodied hand, a mother who is not your mother—were sincerely evoked and honestly earned. From the nods the book made to Lewis Carroll and to Lucy Clifford’s “The New Mother,” it was clear that Neil Gaiman was at home in children’s literature: you could tell that he knew and respected It and thus us.
This same knowledge and respect would be demonstrated in the several books for children that have followed: folklore’s favored villain in The Wolves in the Walls, Norse mythology in Odd and the Frost Giants, the venerable form of Gaiman and Gris Grimly’s The Dangerous Alphabet: “E’s for the Evil that lures and entices; F is for Fear and its many devices.” And there is of course the Newbery and Carnegie Medal-winning The Graveyard Book, playing homage to generations of children’s literature’s honorable orphans, most notably Kipling’s Mowgli. Like The Graveyard Book’s young hero Bod, Neil Gaiman’s books have been nurtured by ghosts of most distinguished lineage and powerful effect.
If you read Gaiman’s adult novels or his comics, you can easily see that his work for children is no byway, no boring bedtime story Celebrity Author X has inflicted on his own kids for years and now chooses to bestow upon the world. Neil Gaiman instead helps us to understand that children’s literature is not a term defined by who its intended audience is, but by its form. The differences between The Sandman and American Gods and The Graveyard Book aren’t defined by who reads them but by the demands of their very distinct shapes. You can—and Gaiman has—write about ghosts and gods and terror and loneliness in any number of forms, respecting and challenging the traditions of each. If you’re good at it—and Gaiman is—your work will earn you welcome even among the very . . . particular . . . people I know are assembled here tonight. So please join me in welcoming this Stranger Come to Town, Neil Gaiman.