That so many former spies became novelists is not surprising. To resort to an easy aphorism, both professions tell lies to tell truths. However, that children’s literature has also attracted its fair share of intelligence practitioners is more than a little unexpected. Espionage, among the most pragmatic of professions, is not known for its whimsy. If truth be told, espionage credibly ranks among the least whimsical of professions.
“Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it,” Graham Greene, WWII spy and author, wrote in The Quiet American, though he also surprisingly penned a series of delightful children’s books The Little Train (1946); The Little Fire Engine (1950); The Little Horse Bus (1952); and The Little Steamroller (1953), all featuring anthropomorphic heroes. The books were a collaboration with his mistress, Dorothy Glover, a theater costume designer and the landlady of his London writing studio; a single name, Dorothy Craigie, appeared on the books, presumably a pseudonym for Glover who illustrated them.
In particular, The Little Train contains echoes of Greeneland familiar to his readers. Bored with laboring on the quiet branch line, the Little Train longs for “the world outside, where the great expresses go.” But when he finally escapes his quiet town of Little Snoreing and travels to the city—called Smokeoverall—he’s presented with a frightening landscape and station stops with names like High Yelling, Tombe Junction, and Grimborough. At the end of the tale, and after some tribulation, the Little Train returns home to a welcoming celebration.
The first of the books was likely written during the V-2 attacks, following Greene’s overseas work for British intelligence while his wife, Vivien, was safely living with their children in the country, and he was volunteering as a London fire warden with Glover. It wasn’t until a 1952 and a re-issue of The Little Fire Engine that he stepped from the shadows as a children’s book author. The book’s jacket announced, “IT CAN NOW BE REVEALED that Graham Greene was not only the author of the book which you now have in your hand, but, also its predecessor, The Little Train.” Greene would later send an inscribed copy of The Little Train to his new mistress, Lady Catherine Walston. That Greene would send a current mistress a copy of a book written with a previous mistress is no less Greene-like than his insistence that Glover’s drawings remain in the books to provide her with royalty income. It wasn’t until her death in the 1970s that he allowed for the popular illustrator Edward Ardizzone’s drawings to be used in subsequent editions.
However, there may have been more to the Glover collaboration than Greene ever openly acknowledged. Some scholars speculate the collaboration may have included at least three additional titles—a children’s book and two young adult science fiction works—written under the Craigie pseudonym: Summersalt’s Circus (1947), The Voyage of the Luna I (1948). and Dark Atlantis (1953).
Roald Dahl, beloved author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach and many other works for children, began his writing career while working for British intelligence in Washington during WWII. Assigned to the British Security Coordination, the organization made famous by William Stevenson’s A Man Called Intrepid and later by Jennet Conant’s The Irregulars, Dahl worked under the cover of an assistant air attaché.
Dahl represented a marked departure from the more traditional British diplomats who were often perceived as stuffy by their American cousins. His youth, irreverent sense of humor, and relaxed manner earned him invitations to some of the most exclusive dinners and cocktail parties in the nation’s capital. At a time when American opinion was sharply divided as to whether to enter “another European war,” Dahl had the ear of Washington’s power brokers. It was also reported he was tasked as a male honey trap, called a Romeo Spy in intelligence parlance. At six feet six inches and dashingly handsome in his RAF uniform, he was among a small cadre of British intelligence officers and civilians who practiced what is sometimes referred to as sexpionage.
It was while working in intelligence that Dahl launched his writing career. The August 1, 1942 Saturday Evening Post carried the story “Shot Down Over Libya,” in which an RAF pilot recounted his wartime efforts. The story included no byline, just the brief description, “The author of this factual report on Libyan air fighting is an RAF pilot at present in this country for medical reasons. – The Editors.” In fact, Dahl was not shot down. Flying a biplane, a Gloster Gladiator, on which he was not adequately trained, Dahl became lost over the desert. Forced to make an emergency landing, he sustained serious injuries, though he was fully recovered by the time he arrived in Washington.
Among the lesser-known credits of Dahl’s writing career was as co-author of the screenplay for another writer spy’s work for children, Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The book was originally published in three volumes, the first appearing in 1964, well after James Bond had been introduced to the world; Fleming’s departure from his usual work was prompted by his wanting to tell a tale to his young son. The movie, made as a musical starring Dick Van Dyke, was brought to the big screen by Bond film producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli.
As with Fleming’s Bond novels, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang includes elements of his personal interests. Fleming was a lifelong car enthusiast; the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car is most likely based on the Chitty Bang Bangs developed in the 1920s by Louis Zborowski, a British race car driver and engineer. The Chitty Bang Bangs were, in fact, a series of four cars with very large engines of the type used on WWI Zeppelin airships and advanced features. He combined these exotic cars with a Standard Tourer he once owned. Sadly, they had none of the kind of high-tech features Fleming installed in his magical car or those driven by Bond. However, the patriarch of the family, Commander Pott, does advise his children with very 007-style advice: “Never say ‘no’ to adventures. Always say ‘yes,’ otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.”
A.A. Milne, future author of the Winnie-the-Pooh books, worked as a World War I propagandist after contracting trench fever on the front lines. Recruited into the secretive Military Intelligence Section 7b (MI7b) established in 1916, the division is credited with producing more than 7,500 stories portraying a positive view of the war, profiles of Victoria Cross recipients, optimistic news from the front, and treacherous Germans. The unit was deactivated in 1918 and the material thought destroyed until a trove was found in 2013, which included a commemorative booklet called The Green Book, that was distributed to members of the unit. In the booklet, Milne contributed a poem, a parody of “Under the Greenwood Tree” from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
In MI7B, / Who loves to lie with me / About atrocities / And Hun Corpse Factories. / Come hither, come hither, come hither, / Here shall he see / No enemy, / But sit all day and blether.
And in one of the stranger literary episodes of espionage and children’s literature intersecting, Whittaker Chambers, Soviet spy turned government witness, produced the first English translation of Bambi: A Life in the Woods by German author Felix Salten. It was from this translation, published by Simon & Schuster in 1928, that the 1942 Disney movie was created.
Disillusioned with communism, Chambers dropped out of the movement in the 1930s, though not before secreting a “life preserver” of incriminating material that later became known as the Pumpkin Papers. By the late 1930s, he was working for Time magazine, then later found himself at the center of a firestorm following his accusation against Alger Hiss and others who acted as spies for the Soviet Union.
Greene, always one to surprise, would return to children’s literature later in life. Writing to his grandsons, Jonathan and Andrew Bourget, he told the story of The Monster of Capri on 11 postcards sent through the mail with a sequel, The Monster’s Treasure, written on eight postcards, following a short time later. Alimited edition of 500 signed copies of The Monster of Capri was brought out by Eurographica Helsinki in 1985.
That Greene and others held children’s literature in high regard is without question. In his well-known essay, “Lost Childhood,” he wrote: “Perhaps it is only in childhood books have any deep influence on our lives. In later life we admire, we are entertained, we may modify some views we already hold, but we are more likely to find in books merely a confirmation of what is in our minds already: as in a love affair it is our own features that we see reflected flatteringly back.... What do we ever get nowadays from reading equal to the excitement and the revelation in those first fourteen years?”
Henry R. Schlesinger, an NYC-based author, has been writing about real-life espionage for nearly 20 years. His most recent book, Honey Trapped, is scheduled for publication next spring by Rare Bird Books.