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The Fascinating Inspirations Behind Beloved Children’s Books

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If he were still alive, Alan Alexander Milne — you may know him as A. A. Milne — would turn 130 years old today. If you’re a fan of Milne’s books, you probably know that you can go and see the original teddy bear that inspired the character of Winnie-the-Pooh if you visit the New York Public Library — it’s on display there along with a selection of other similar stuffed toys that inspired Tigger, Eeyore, and Piglet. The fact that the books were based on Milne’s son’s toys is just one of a number of fascinating stories behind beloved children’s classics, and we’ve related a few more such tales after the jump. Let us know if you have any to add!

Winnie-the-Pooh

Inspiration: Stuffed toys

Milne’s inspiration for the anthropomorphic protagonists of his stories came from a collection of stuffed toys owned by his son (whose name was, yes, Christopher Robin Milne) — Winnie-the-Pooh himself was a teddy bear that Christopher received for his first birthday. There seems to be some debate as to to what extent Christopher came to resent the attention that the books brought him — his biography describes being taunted by his schoolmates about them, and also claims that “my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son,” although the book also seemed to suggest that by his later years he’d reconciled himself to his father’s legacy. There’s more information here, if you’re interested.

Harry Potter

Inspiration: A train journey

One day in 1990, struggling writer Jo Rowling was taking a train from Manchester from London. She’d apparently spent most of the day apartment-hunting up north — she was planning to move to Manchester with her boyfriend — and as she day-dreamed on the journey home, an idea popped into her head: a story about “a scrawny, little black-haired, bespectacled boy.” The only problem was that Rowling didn’t have a pen with her, so she spent the rest of the journey developing the idea in her head, and set to work on what’d become Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone in the US) that night.

Where the Wild Things Are

Inspiration: Scary relatives, an inability to draw horses

Fun fact: Where the Wild Things Are was originally going to be called Where the Wild Horses Are. The only problem was that as it transpired, Maurice Sendak couldn’t draw a convincing horse to save his life. In the end, his despairing editor changed the title on the faith that if Sendak couldn’t do horses, he could “at the very least draw ‘a thing.'” The “things” he drew ended up being caricatures of the “hideous” family members who’d visit the young Sendak’s house on a Sunday afternoon. “I drew my relatives,” he admitted to the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “They’re all dead now, so I can tell people.”

Watership Down

Inspiration: A WWII battle

Like several of the books here, Watership Down began as a story that the author told his own children — Richard Adams apparently kept his two young daughters amused during the long car journey from London to Stratford-upon-Avon by telling them stories about the rabbits they saw out the car window. He based the animals’ adventures on his experiences in World War II, and specifically the Battle of Arnhem, where Allied forces met unexpected resistance in their efforts to move into the Netherlands. His daughters loved the stories so much that they insisted he write them down; the rest, as they say, is history.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Inspiration: Friendship and, allegedly, psychedelics

Plenty of readers over the years have looked at the presence of perception-altering mushrooms and pipe-smoking caterpillars in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and wondered whether Lewis Carroll might have been partial to the local amanita muscaria toadstools. The thing is, though, that although there are plenty of theories about the possible influence of psychedelics on Carroll’s work, there’s precious little in the way of proof. What is known for sure is that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland began in the tales that Carroll told Alice Liddell, a young girl to whom he was very close. (Just how close is a whole separate controversy, and not one we’re even going to begin to tackle here.)

The Little Prince

Inspiration: Being marooned in the Sahara

One of the fascinating things about researching this feature has been discovering how many classic children’s books were inspired by their authors’ experiences in World War II. The experiences that inspired The Little Prince, however, predated the war — they took place during 1935, when the splendidly named Antoine du Saint-Exupéry and his navigator were flying across Morocco as part of an air race from Saigon to Paris. Their plane crashed, and they were stranded in the desert for four days. The hallucinations Saint-Exupéry experienced in the heat played a large part in the narrative of his enduring classic. And although The Little Prince wasn’t directly inspired by the war, Saint-Exupéry went on to serve as fighter pilot in the French Air Force and, after the French armistice in 1940, the Free French Air Force in North Africa. In the end, the war claimed his life — he disappeared without trace while on a reconnaissance mission off the coast of France in July 1944.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Inspiration: Nightmares, fairy tales, John D. Rockefeller

L. Frank Baum described The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an “American fairy tale,” and the influence of traditional European fairy tales is certainly apparent in its fantastic characters and rollicking plot. It seems that several of those characters (especially the scarecrow) were drawn from the vivid nightmares Baum would have as a child, while the Wizard himself was allegedly based on industrialist, billionaire, and über-capitalist John D. Rockefeller.

The Gremlins

Inspiration: RAF folklore

Back to World War II! Roald Dahl’s first children’s book drew heavily on his experience as a fighter pilot — the “Gremlins” of the title were generally offered by pilots as a humorous explanation for the otherwise inexplicable mechanical problems that’d occasionally plague their aircraft. The book was commissioned by Walt Disney as a treatment for a feature film, which was eventually shelved. However, the idea would be revisited some 40 years later for a feature film that was very successful indeed — Steven Spielberg’s Gremlins, whose ante-meridian mischief makers were loosely based on Dahl’s creatures.

The Chronicles of Narnia

Inspiration: WWII, again, and a picture of a faun

C.S. Lewis’ home in the country was one of many to which children were evacuated from London during World War II. Specifically, three schoolgirls came to live with Lewis during 1939, and their company inspired the writer to begin a story about the adventures of fictional children in a similar predicament. The resultant story would become The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and much of the plot grew out of a picture that Lewis had seen in his youth of a faun walking through a winter landscape with an umbrella tucked under its arm. Lewis placed his fictional children into the picture… and Narnia was born.

The Cat in the Hat

Inspiration: A magazine article, boring children’s books, a limited vocabulary

The late Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel was apparently inspired to write his all-time classic by a 1954 article in Life magazine that bemoaned the fact that the terminally dull Dick-and-Jane-style books used in classrooms at the time were so boring that they were undermining attempts to teach kids to read. Already a reasonably successful writer, Geisel echoed the article’s concerns to William Ellsworth Spaulding, the director of publisher Houghton Mifflin’s education division. Spaulding responded by providing Geisel with a list of simple words that such books were designed to teach children, and challenged him to “bring back a book that children can’t put down.” The result was The Cat in the Hat. (Incidentally, the title arose from the fact that “cat” and “hat” were the only two words on Spaulding’s list that rhymed.)