If the days following the 2016 election have taught us anything it is this: Children’s authors don’t like Nazis. In fact, they kind of hate them. A lot. But let’s not think of this as a new trend or anything. As it happens a LOT of children’s authors out there have hated Nazis for a very long time. Pretty much since Nazis started to exist. This got me to thinking . . . what are some of the most obvious anti-Nazi stories surrounding children’s literature and that come straight out of children’s books?
Here today, for your reading pleasure, is a brief catalog of children’s books vs. Nazis. Spoiler Alert: The children’s books win.
Paddington Bear – Child Refugee
I was reading the February 6th issue of The New Yorker the other day and got to that Mo Willems article “Fail Funnier” (which was oddly renamed for the online edition as Mo Willems’s Funny Failures) that I’d seen bandied about the internet lately. I settled down and read it through, pausing briefly over a part where reporter Rivka Galchen starts to grapple with the fact that children’s authors aren’t all sunshine and fluffy bunnies (and for more on that particular topic I refer you to Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature . . . but I digress). Galchen says that she wonders, “if the truer unity among children’s-book authors is sublimated outrage at the adult world.” She cites several examples to back this up, including the fact that, “Paddington Bear was modelled on the Jewish refugee children turning up alone in London train stations.”
Come again? I’ve thought myself well and truly familiar with the behind-the-scenes stories of many classic characters but this was the first time I’d ever heard Paddington equated with refugees. But he really is, isn’t he? Sitting there with just his hat, coat, bag, and marmalade. There are no Nazis that I can detect in the Paddington books, but in an era where we’re seeing articles in the Guardian like If Paddington Bear pitched up today, would anyone give him a warm welcome? I think this topic is more timely than ever. A Refugee Action Group even staged a Paddington Bear Parade back in September.
For a more recent discussion of how Jewish refugees have played into American children’s literature, consider reading the recent New Voices article “A Series of Unfortunate Events” Author Analyzes Jewish Themes of New Netflix Series.
Curious George – On the Run from the Nazis
It’s odd to think that this hasn’t been turned into a movie yet. If P.L. Travers can be Emma Thompson, J.M. Barrie Johnny Depp, and Renee Zellweger Beatrix Potter than it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine who would play Margaret and Hans Rey. The story of how Curious George barely escaped from the Nazis was cut from the aforementioned Wild Things, but Jules Danielson and I couldn’t resist putting the story online for everyone to read. Here are the pertinent details:
But on May 10, 1940, while Hans was fine-tuning Fifi during a vacation in Avranches, the German army crossed over the border into Holland and Belgium. With their fear growing, the Reys purchased train tickets in order to return to Paris. They returned to Paris on May 23 and found that the city was flooded with refugees, all folks trying to get away from the fighting. As German-born Jews, they knew they would have to flee and set the goal of returning to Brazil (where they had married in 1935), followed by a visit to New York City where Margret’s sister lived. By June, two million Parisians had fled, and Paris was declared an open city, one who would not fight any invading armies. Hans and Margret were among just a few tenants at the hotel they had made their home. After buying the spare parts and four large baskets for two bicycles from a small shop, Hans pieced together two bikes. And on June 12, they fled on these bicycles over cobblestone streets two days before the German troops entered Paris and the French and allied forces retreated. They traveled light — a few clothes, their winter coats, some bread, cheese, meat, water, an umbrella, and Hans’s pipe. More than five million people were on the roads that day, fleeing France.
Strapped to their bike racks to be smuggled out of the country were the also the watercolors for and draft of Curious George, still tentatively titled Fifi, Hans making sure to keep his artwork dry in the basket covered by his winter coat. With them were four other manuscripts, including the draft for Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World, which didn’t see publication until 2000 (though it had initially been planned for publication in 1943 and had at one time been in the hands of legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom). The Reys headed for Brazil and eventually made their way to the States, meeting Hogarth and making picture book history.
Check out the article to learn precisely why jolly old England changed George’s name to Zozo.
Tove Jansson and the Nazi Occupation
The Moomins are cute and cuddly. Indeed, you’d hardly believe they were created during the rise of the Nazi Occupation of Finland, and yet that’s exactly what happened. In November of 2014 The Economist chronicled the life of Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins, placing her life in the context of its times. It wrote:
Jansson grew up in the shadow of the Russian revolution, which spilled over into bitter civil war in Finland in 1918. Her father fought on the anti-communist side, and one of her best adult stories describes her child-self watching him carousing with his old war comrades and, at a certain moment, ritualistically bayoneting a wicker chair. Many thousands died in that war, and although the anticommunists won, the country remained divided—increasingly so with the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Jansson remembered feeling so enraged by her father’s views that “she had to go to the bathroom and vomit”.
So it was that in the 30s she became an anti-Nazi pacifist, and in 1934 created her first Moomin while simultaneously drawing caricatures of Hitler and Stalin. They gave her an escape in a crazy world. Here’s one of them:
Dr. Seuss – Not Fond of Hitler Before, During, or After WWII
It won’t surprise anyone too terribly to learn that Dr. Seuss a.k.a. Theodore Geisel was a political cartoonist in his youth. In fact, according to The Atlantic, he drew 400 such cartoons in the earliest years of WWII. The anti-Hitler stuff? Boffo. The racist Japanese stuff? Awful. As the article says, “Instead of mocking their leader, as he did with Germany and Italy, Geisel ridiculed the Japanese people, drawing them as grinning menaces, stray cats, and slithering worms.”
But, to get back to my point, he did not like Hitler, even before WWII broke out. Some have speculated this was due to his own German roots and a desire to be as fiercely American as possible. Still others say that he saw Hitler as the threat he was early on.
One of the interesting things about Seuss is the degree to which people try to read politics into his children’s books. Marvin K. Mooney is Nixon (not entirely untrue, but the story’s in Wild Things). The Cat in the Hat is shooting pinkos. Horton Hears a Who is a parable for post-war Japanese occupation (that one was a new one on me). And then there’s good old Yertle the Turtle. He’s a self-aggrandizing bombast that demands that he stand on the backs of his lowly servants. Any truth to the Hitler connection? Judith Morgan, author of the biography Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel thinks that there is. In fact, she has gone on record saying that, “in his early drawings for the book, Ted did draw the turtle with a mustache. Yertle was very definitely Hitler.”
Not That Hitler Was Any Too Fond of Certain Picture Book Characters Either
While finding children’s books that mocked Hitler in their pages during WWII might be difficult to locate (paging Phil Nel . . .) what isn’t hard is locating books that Hitler himself despised. And of all the American children’s books of the time, none raised his ire quite like Ferdinand the Bull. Yep. That tale of a pacifist bull, refusing to fight, preferring to sniff the flowers, was called out for its “degenerate democratic propaganda.” In Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children she writes that since it came out during the Spanish Civil War and appeared, to some, to be commenting on it, Generalissimo Francisco Franco banned it from Spain as well. Back in the U.S., Disney and Co. created a short film version of Ferdinand the Bull which went on to win the 1938 Academy Award for Best Animated Short. Did it have any caricatures in it? It did, but nothing anti-Hitler or Franco. Instead the matador was a caricature of Walt Disney and the other men in the bullring were caricatures of Disney artists. Now it’s 2017 and apparently (though they’ve been saying this for years) on December 15th of this year we’ll see a full-length Ferdinand film. Will it say something about the times in which we live? I have absolutely no idea.
And the Award for Children’s Author Who Hates Hitler the Most Goes To . . .
By 2003 Maurice Sendak was going to damn well do what he liked on the page and devil take the consequences. And what he wanted to do was pair with playwright Tony Kushner to produce the highly ambitious book Brundibar.
In his review of the book in The New York Times, author Gregory Maguire explains about the book’s roots:
“Initially written for a 1938 arts competition sponsored by the Czechoslovak Ministry of Education and Culture, ‘Brundibar’ was an opera with a libretto by a playwright, Adolf Hoffmeister, and music by Hans Krasa. It had its premiere in a Jewish orphanage for boys. Subsequently it was performed 55 times at the Terezin concentration camp.”
In the book itself the original opera and the picture book format come together. The villain of the piece is an oddly familiar organ grinder with an even more familiar mustache. Sendak would work on an operatic version of Brundibar as well, but the book was itself a challenge. Maguire rightly places it in the same context as Sendak’s earlier, strange and political We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy.
And hey . . . speaking of Jack and Guy . . . what do you make of this little spread?
Yep. That’s Trump Tower in the background.
Seems Mr. Sendak didn’t much care for that guy either.