I was listening to a Pop Culture Happy Hour show the other day when the topic turned to posthumous works published after a creator’s death. When is it okay to raid a dead author or illustrator’s drawers for unpublished material? Is it ever okay? And is there a significant difference between works that someone finished midstream vs. works they finished entirely but never submitted?
All this comes to mind this year since the Margaret Wise Brown trunk of never ending material has yielded yet another composition. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with this trunk. You see when MWB died in 1952 she left behind a trunk, a literal trunk I say, of unpublished works. Publishers Weekly gives you the inside scoop on the matter here. This year we’re seeing the publication of Goodnight Songs which brings to light many of her lyrics, each with its own separate illustrator. Yet this is hardly the first MWB book to hit bookstore shelves (I’m quite partial to a different title called The Fathers Are Coming Home, illustrated by Stephen Savage). Nor is she alone in posthumous output.
Over the years the estates of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein have shown no qualms in bringing to light many an unpublished title. Remember Daisy-Head Mayzie? No? How about Runny Babbit then? Like Tupac Shakur they just keep churning out the titles. More recently we’ve seen Diana Wynne Jones and Eva Ibbotson publishing books after their demise. However, in those cases the authors were pretty much done with their books. Does this difference matter?
I’ve been trying to think whether or not there is a children’s literature equivalent to the case of A Confederacy of Dunces. Has a children’s book ever debuted a dead hitherto unknown author? Not to the best of my knowledge though if you know of such a case please let me know.
The fact of the matter is that we live in an era when it’s very difficult for anything or anyone to really “die”. All the cartoons from my youth have been rehashed and reimagined for younger generations. Heck, my kid watches a television show where characters from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood have grown up and had kids of their own (stand-by for my take on the weirdness that is Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood in the future). It is simply in keeping with the times that authors would continue to publish and republish long after their own demises.
Let this serve as a warning to the authors of today then. Margaret Wise Brown died when she was 42. You could go at any time (Happy Friday the 13th, everybody!). If you have something you’re hanging onto that you do NOT want to see published, trash that puppy. Be it physical manuscript or a file saved on your desktop, your works are no longer your own once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.
For a similar but significantly different take on the matter please be so good as to indulge in the College Humor piece I Think They’re Running Out of Material for New Shel Silverstein Books which contained the following:
“These poems were never meant to be read,
If you’re seeing them, that means I’m dead.
Please don’t be a jerk,
Stay away from my work,
And go raid Dr. Seuss’s instead.”
*With apologies to Glen Weldon who came up with the phrase first.