7 Literary Icons Who Moonlighted as Children’s Authors

Even the most serious authors can't resist the challenge of writing for the most discerning audience: little kids

Photo by Mi Pham

When I think of literary authors, I often imagine my college reading list — and my lecturer’s pontifications on how their books have been meticulously etched into the canon of cultural significance. I rarely think about storytime with Mom and Dad.

So would you believe it if I told you that Nobel laureate Toni Morrison published as many books for kids as she did adult novels? Or that Stephen King, the Mayor of Creepsville, Maine, had a lesson to impart to children? As it happens, even the most serious of authors can’t resist the challenge of writing for some of the most discerning readers: young kids.

Little Man, Little Man

James Baldwin

In his groundbreaking essays, novels, plays, and speeches, Baldwin certainly never pulled his punches when it came to commenting on racism and identity in America. The same could be said for Little Man, Little Man. The story is told through the eyes of four-year-old TJ, who plays ball with friends on his Harlem block and runs errands for his neighbors. The book offers strong lessons for both the characters and the reader, with lines like: “I want you to be proud of your people,” TJ’s Daddy would always say.

Baldwin saw the book as a “celebration of the self-esteem of black children,” allowing TJ and his friends to play and find joy in the face of systemic oppression. The book is also replete with vivid watercolor illustrations by French abstract painter Yoran Cazak — making this a beautiful, meaningful reading experience for children in more ways than one.

Virginia Woolf

In 1923, Virginia Woolf contributed to a small, unusual family project. She had already written three novels (and was on the cusp of publishing her breakout hit, Mrs. Dalloway) when she responded to a submission call from The Charleston Bulletin — a newspaper run by her teenage nephews. Answering the brief, she wrote The Widow and the Parrot, in which a widow inherits her brother’s house after he passes away. She travels there to collect her inheritance only to find a peculiar parrot named James. Without giving too much away, this tale of mystery and altruism reminds us all that it pays to be a little kinder to animals.

Gertrude Stein

Shortly after the founding of Young Scott Books in 1938, one of its authors, Margaret Wise Brown (who penned Goodnight Moon), suggested that the publisher convince famous adult authors to give writing children’s books a try. Many, like John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, declined — but Gertrude Stein was ready. 

As it would happen, Stein had half of The World is Round already written before Young Scott even approached her. In Stein’s characteristically playful prose, she chronicles the adventures of a little girl named Rose as she tries to make sense of the world. Printed on pink pages and blue ink (which Stein insisted upon), the book introduces its young readers to themes of identity and individuality with quirky, elliptical lines like “And which little girl am I am I the little girl named Rose which little girl named Rose.” Stein’s signature line “a rose is a rose is a rose” even makes an appearance, as our protagonist symbolically carves it around a tree.

Chike and the River by Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

When Chinua Achebe became a parent, he was alarmed by the amount of racism written into the books his daughter was exposed to at school. As a response, he wrote Chike and the River, which tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy who longs to cross the Niger River to a city called Asaba. He doesn’t have a sixpence — the fee for the ferry ride — so he embarks on a series of thrilling and terrifying journeys to jerry-rig his way toward his goal. Achebe went on to write several more children’s books including The Drum and The Flute, which are adaptations of traditional Igbo folktales.

Toni Morrison

Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison was a prolific children’s book writer, at one point publishing at least two a year. Most of these titles were written in conjunction with her son, Slade, whose childhood musings formed the basis of The Big Box and The Book of Mean People. Morrison completists will enjoy an audio version of three fables called Who’s Got Game, which Morrison herself reads with supreme command. And don’t forget to check out Peeny Butter Fudge, a fun family tale about mischievous grandchildren visiting their grandmother — in which Nana gets in on the hijinks.

Pretty Minnie in Hollywood by Danielle Steel

Danielle Steel

Danielle Steel might not be a traditional “literary author” per se, but we wanted to include her in this list anyway — if only for the novelty factor of a serious romance writer turning her pen to children’s lit.

Best known for steaming up reading rooms with her saucy romances, Steel is also no stranger to kid lit. Since the 1980s, she’s published picture books aiming to help children face real-life problems with titles like Martha’s New Daddy and Freddie’s First Night Away. Steel’s most recent kids’ series is about her chihuahua, Minnie, and her adventures.

Charlie the Choo-Choo

Stephen King

If Danielle Steel wasn’t risqué enough, how about the master of both weird sex and chilling fear: Stephen King. Many of us probably peeked behind the cover of one of his thrillers before we were “of age,” but the horror author also wrote several books that were actually intended for young audiences.

King’s main contribution to the world of children’s literature is Charlie the Choo Choo, which he wrote under the pseudonym Beryl Evans. The title character is a sentient train with a life of his own. (Like Christine, but not murdery.) If you want to know what that looks like, just imagine a fire-damaged Thomas the Tank Engine with a Joker grin. 

The plot revolves around Charlie and his best friend, Engineer Bob, as they lay down the track to adventures that reveal the importance of hard work and camaraderie. The book plays a key role in the third book of the Dark Tower series, where it’s purchased by one of the protagonists. Finally, in 2016, King decided to make it real, complete with a sly quote on the front cover: “If I were ever to write a children’s book, it would be just like this!”

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