Stephen Colbert’s talent for fomenting perverse merriment blossoms when he is posing as the indignant defender of an issue that, in actuality, he is skewering with gleeful satire. He was in top form recently when he spoofed a new children’s book entitled My Parents Open Carry featuring a gun-toting mom and dad. Colbert’s brilliantly targeted ridicule inspired his fans to post humorous online suggestions for changing a host of well-known children’s books so they would reflect our society’s obsession with guns.
I am an author and illustrator who has published more than 100 children’s books, and Stephen Colbert’s satirical sketch resonated strongly with me. Recently I was motivated by our ever-increasing focus on guns and gun violence to make significant changes in one of my books entitled Pinkerton Behave, which was published 35 years ago.
During my career, most of my books were created in the attic studio of an old farmhouse in Sandy Hook, Conn., where my wife, Helen, and I lived for 35 years and raised a large family. After the kids were grown, we downsized to a smaller home in the Adirondacks where I continue creating children’s books, and traveling around the country to present programs on reading and storytelling in schools and libraries.
While driving home from a school visit in New Jersey on December 14, 2012, I heard the news that a deranged young man from my former neighborhood had gunned down 20 first-graders in the Sandy Hook Elementary School, where most of our children had been students and where I had appeared frequently as a guest author. Proceeding homeward in a state of shock, I was further dismayed to find that Helen, stabilized in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, had lapsed into a state of anxiety and disorientation upon hearing the news, mentally lost between our current New York state residence and our former home in Sandy Hook.
During the following weeks, while trying to help Helen, and coping with my own depression, I resolved to respond to the tragedy in the voice of my professional focus, the illustrated book for children. I found the perfect collaborator in my friend Patricia MacLachlan, author of the classic Sarah, Plain and Tall, and a fellow board member of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. After months of intense work Random House published our book, Snowflakes Fall, in October 2013. It was dedicated to the children of Sandy Hook, with verses and paintings celebrating the precious individuality of all children and the joyous adventure of childhood.
Creating the book proved to be a healing experience, and it also caused me to rethink a controversy that had been growing around one of my early books, Pinkerton, Behave. It was inspired almost 35 years earlier by the real Pinkerton, an impossible but endearing Great Dane puppy who thwarted every attempt to teach him the accepted norms of canine socialization by lapsing into a state of determined confusion.
In the story Pinkerton’s failings lead to his humiliating expulsion from a prestigious obedience school. But then the little girl in the family decodes the pattern of Pinkerton’s obsessive misbehavior, and she utilizes that discovery to direct him in a series of maneuvers that brings about the arrest of an intruder who is burglarizing the house.
In creating the burglar back in the mid 1970s, I had patterned him after the stereotyped caricature of comic book bad guys I remembered from my childhood, and I portrayed him wielding an oversized pistol.
As time passed, the prevalence of domestic gun violence became a growing national concern, and the inclusion of that menacing gun elicited objections and protests from adult readers who were sharing the book with children in their lives. In light of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and the alarming statistics of gun violence (with 80 school shootings having occurred in the country since December 14, 2012), I recognized that my thinking had changed and the book must also.
I discussed my feelings with Lauri Hornik, my editor at Penguin. Would it be possible to publish a revised and re-illustrated version of Pinkerton, Behave? She shared my concerns and pointed out that the book’s 35th anniversary was approaching, perfect timing for the publication of a new edition that would update and reflect societal concerns about guns and violence.
Positive reviews of the original book had appeared in a number of periodicals, including Newsweek, which printed one of the illustrations where the gun was most prominently depicted. I began work on the new edition by recomposing all of those images and deleting the gun. As I proceeded, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the intervening decades had broadened the horizons of my imagination, and I enjoyed adding many new verbal and visual details that I felt made the updated version a lot more fun.
But, most importantly, I was motivated by the conviction that caring citizens must try to reprogram their society for the safety and well being of everyone, and authors and illustrators have an obligation to create the highest quality literature and art in order to enrich the lives of children. Focusing on that goal, I rejected the direction that was satirically proposed by Stephen Colbert, and readers of the revised and re-illustrated 35th-anniversary edition of Pinkerton, Behave! will find that the bad guy-burglar has been disarmed.