Gaiman in Chicago

GaimanMe1 Gaiman in ChicagoThis 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.

share save 171 16 Gaiman in Chicago
Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. It is hugely intimidating to write a comment to follow this. I will just say that this is a masterful introduction. I admire your honesty and look forward to reading the books you mention.

  2. I can see that Neil Gaiman has really relaxed a lot since Comic Con 2007. This is great. (I’m talking about the photo)

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Nah–confronted with a Sex God such as myself, he just couldn’t help it.

  4. :-) tee hee – of course! why didn’t I think of that.

  5. Maia Cheli-Colando says:

    Roger, it’s the tie, of course. Who could resist the cheeks above such a tie?

  6. Great and true intro, Roger. You nailed it. And I think I told you the story of how as an editor I was all set to buy Coraline for Harcourt and was vetoed from above, the very first time anyone ever vetoed a book I was planning to buy. So the history of children’s books took an interesting turn!

    Jane

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*