When it comes to childhood authors, we often end up hearing the same names. Dr. Seuss of course, is practically synonymous with children’s literature. Other names which our first grade teachers may have brought up include Maurice Sendak, Eric Carle, Jan Brett, or Bill Peet, the last of which is one of my favorite authors.
Bill Peet? Oh, he’s the author of those books sitting on the shelf behind me. Oh and he wrote the Lorax too(except it was called “The Wump World”).
But in all seriousness though, Bill Peet is a lot more important than one would think. And that’s because of another ubiquitous name of childhood: Disney. Shorts like Goliath II, or the designs for 101 Dalmatians? Those were him. Bill Peet initially started out as a story man for Walt Disney, and you’ll hear many say he was Disney’s greatest. He worked with animation legends. Most stories about Walt Disney are rather polarized; it’s either the jovial, creative Uncle Walt, or the harsh, thieving business Nazi. Peet however had a fairly ambivalent view of the larger than life figure. In spite of the respect Peet held for Walt, it didn’t distract from the fact that Walt could be controlling even with the best intentions.
As an author, Bill Peet always managed to unify whimsy with realism. The animals he drew in many of his stories drew influence from all over the world. The charismatic African animals, to the humble ones living in the swamp. His stories were never too difficult for me to read, but weren’t ones that talked down to the audience either. There was the obligatory children’s story moral, but it always seemed executed in a satisfying manner.
One of my favorite stories(or at least, my most frequently read story) was Buford the Little Bighorn. Long story short, he discovers a talent for skiing because of the over sized horns he once lamented at the beginning. The theme itself is well tread, but the unexpected way it comes about is memorable. I certainly didn’t expect the hidden talent of a bighorn sheep to be skiing.
Ant and the Elephant was another one of my favorites. Not only did it feature two of my favorite animals as the protagonists, but it was an interesting take on the “friend in need story”. Throughout the story, you see animals ranging from the turtle, to the hornbill, to the giraffe, and so on who refuse to help one another even though their talents are capable of providing the exact convenience. The turtle could help the ant cross the pond, the hornbill could flip the turtle right side up, the list goes on. Bar the eponymous characters, they’re not very likable but part of me tries to imagine a more optimistic variant. Ultimately however, it is the elephant helps everyone out with their troubles. And when he tumbles into the ravine, it is the humble ant who eventually saves the elephant. but it goes to show that there is an ability for every situation.
And I do think that’s probably the most important moral of his stories. There’s a unique way that each of his characters is able to find their niche. From the sea serpent who saves the ship, to the vultures who help the lion play dead, there’s so many unique aspects that reflected in Bill Peet’s stories. He creates this subtle sense of optimism that encourages characters to move outside their boundaries.