I’m 38 going on 39 and I’ve noticed something strange about pop culture. As more members of my generation are placed in positions of power in the entertainment and publishing industry, cultural references to my childhood are becoming increasingly prevalent. For example, I was sitting down with my kiddo to watch the LEGO Batman movie the other day and the trailers popped up. We watched the one for Despicable Me 3, in which the villain is in love with all things 1980s. I found myself really digging the references (Look! A Rubic’s Cube!) It was mildly unnerving.
Far more unnerving, however, is when someone takes something from your childhood and extends it beyond its natural life. We’ve seen a lot of this lately. For folks a generation or two below me, they probably felt it when J.K. Rowling approved of the script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child or wrote the script for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. For Star Wars fans, the fact that we’re going to see a new Star Wars film every year is hard to contemplate after the years of drought. Even the comics aren’t excluded. When Berkeley Breathed eschewed the years of Outland (as is right) and somehow managed to go back to his original drawing style for new strips of Bloom County I found myself deep in Uncanny Valley. It looked right. It felt right. It had the right pedigree. But how could such a thing exist? How could this be?
Children’s literature has had to deal with all of this for years, of course. Beloved characters from our childhood are constantly appropriated into new formats. Poor Peter Rabbit is an animated television show one day and a re-illustrated book another. Peter from The Snowy Day and his friends cropped up in all kinds of books, thanks to the posthumous Ezra Jack Keats’ estate. There’s no time limit at work here, either. Just at lunch yesterday I read the Julia Donaldson sequel to The Owl and the Pussycat, and it wasn’t half bad.
Still, putting aside the successful adaptations, let us celebrate those characters that have thus far avoided the inevitable. The few. The proud. The . . .
Characters That Have Yet to Have Their Stories Continued
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel – Virginia Lee Burton pretty much stuck a fork in that one. Not only is Mary Ann out of commission but she’s a coal burning furnace. Ironically, in her updated form she’s now just as out-of-date as she was as a steam shovel. That might not stop someone from creating a prequel, of course. How Mike Mulligan Met Mary Ann. *shudder* I feel like someone just walked across my grave. Look for Mary Ann in Sherri Duskey Rinker and John Rocco’s upcoming picture book biography Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton.
Max from Where the Wild Things Are – Granted he technically appeared in the re-published edition of Bears by Ruth Krauss back in 2005, but since that was Sendak at work there we’ll allow him the unofficial sequel. Otherwise, Max has stayed pretty untouchable. It can’t last forever, though. I expect to see him trouncing about in his wolf suit again before the end of my days. No question.
The Ducklings from Make Way for Ducklings – This one surprises me. It would be shockingly easy for someone to just select one duckling (Ouack, obviously) and then create a series of easy books based on his tiny adventures. The Robert McCloskey estate must be clever creatures to keep this out of the hands of the greedy. Sal from Blueberries for Sal has also eschewed commercialization. Thank goodness. Otherwise it would be Strawberries for Sal (Sal follows a chipmunk) and Apples for Sal (Sal follows a squirrel) and Mangoes for Sal (Sal vs. a monkey) as far as the eye could see.
Frog and Toad – Certainly their stories have been adapted occasionally. There was that claymation series and the magnificent staged musical. But much of what I love about the two is that I’ve never seen The Further Adventures of Frog and Toad. Mr. Lobel’s kids are attentive and active, so they’re to be credited here. Well done, folks.
Ferdinand the Bull – Though, honestly, with that movie coming out in late 2017, it’s pretty much a done deal. Just you wait. Just you wait.