12 Famous Authors Who Also Wrote for Children

Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley
Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Sometimes you just want to be a kid again. These literary luminaries quietly tried their hands at writing children’s stories. (Caution: spoilers!)

1. James Joyce

Original scan by Maria Popova/Brain Pickings

James Joyce wrote some of the most influential—and impenetrable—literature of the 20th century. When he wasn’t doing that, he wrote about cats.

In 1936, Joyce mailed two stories to his grandson, Stephen. The tales would later be published as children’s books: The Cat and the Devil and The Cats of Copenhagen. The Cat and the Devil, a riff off a French fable, posthumously became Joyce’s first picture book in 1964. In it, a mayor hires the devil to build a bridge. The devil agrees under one condition: he owns the first soul that crosses. When the devil finishes, the mayor tosses a cat across the bridge, sealing the deal and leaving Lucifer with a pet.

Joyce’s second story, The Cats of Copenhagen, was published in 2012. Here’s a page:

2. e. e. cummings

e. e. cummings wrote around 2900 poems, two novels, and countless essays. He also wrote four stories for his daughter Nancy, which were published in a 1965 collection called Fairy Tales. The stories include The Old Man Who Said "Why", The Elephant and the Butterfly, and The House that Ate Mosquito Pie. The most playful yarn, however, may be The Little Girl named I—an experiment with nouns. At the end, the girl named “I” meets a girl named “you.”

3. Upton Sinclair

Upton Sinclair was once called “a man with every gift except humor and silence.” Sinclair poured his life’s work into criticizing society and politics, but he still found room for fun. In 1936, the muckraker released The Gnomobile: A Gnice Gnew Gnarrative with Gnonsense, but Gnothing Gnaughty.

A girl named Elizabeth discovers the last two gnomes living in the Redwood Forest. The gnomes—Bobo and Glogo—distrust “big people” because they cut trees and destroy gnome homes. After gaining their trust, Elizabeth drives her pointy-hatted friends across the country to find other gnomes. Sinclair couldn’t help but moralize, subtly scolding industrialization and pollution along the way. In 1967, Walt Disney turned Sinclair’s tale into a movie.

4. Ernest Hemingway

In 1951, Holiday Magazine published Hemingway’s only stories for children: The Good Lion and The Faithful Bull. Hemingway likely wrote both fables for Adriana Ivancich (his Venetian love interest) and her nephew.

The Good Lion follows a winged, pasta-eating lion. He visits Africa, where he's bullied by other lions for being different. The big cat, however, never bites back. He stays cheerful, eventually flying away from his bullies in Hemingway style:

"Adios," he said, for he spoke beautiful Spanish, being a lion of culture.

The Faithful Bull is a parody of Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand, a tale about a bull who’d rather smell flowers than fight. Hemingway opens swinging:

One time there was a bull and his name was not Ferdinand and he cared nothing for flowers. He loved to fight and he fought with all the other bulls of his own age, or any age, and he was a champion.

The bull is later sent to pasture to breed, where he falls in love with a beautiful cow. His true love, however, is bullfighting, so he returns—only to be killed by a matador.

5. Aldous Huxley

Thirteen years after writing Brave New World, Aldous Huxley penned a story for his 5-year-old niece called The Crows of Pearblossom. Four years after Huxley died, Random House published the tale as a picture book. The story follows Mr. and Mrs. Crow and their neighbor, Mr. Snake, who always steals and eats their eggs. One day, the Crows leave fake eggs in their nest. When Mr. Snake eats the eggs, he gets a bad stomachache and dies.

6. John Updike

John Updike wrote dozens of novels and won two Pulitzer Prizes for literature. Most, however, forget the five children’s books on his resume: A Helpful Alphabet of Friendly Objects, Bottom’s Dream, The Magic Flute, The Ring, and A Child’s Calendar.

In A Helpful Alphabet, Updike wrote a poem about 26 everyday objects—one for each letter of the alphabet—which his son photographed. Here’s letter K:

“A knot is a thing that happens to string, sometimes on purpose and sometimes not. To undo one is hard for a grownup or tot. The eyes and the fingernails must puzzle it away. Another puzzle: why is it spelled with a K?”

Three of Updike’s other children’s books—Bottom’s Dream, The Magic Flute, and The Ring—are playful adaptations of music by Mendelssohn, Mozart, and Wagner. His fifth book, A Child’s Calendar, is a collection of 12 poems, one for each month.

7. Salman Rushdie

After The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s nine-year-old son, Zafar, scolded his father for never writing anything for children. Rushdie promised to write a kid-friendly book soon; two years later, he published Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The whimsical narrative follows Rashid, a professional storyteller who lost his ability to tell tales. Haroun, Rashid’s son, takes his father on an adventure, hoping to re-inspire him. The fantastical book emphasizes one theme: stories are the building blocks of your identity.

In 2010, Rushdie wrote a book for young adults, Luka and the Fire of Life.

8. Umberto Eco

Philosopher Umberto Eco is best known for his novel Foucault’s Pendulum, but he also wrote a trio of children’s books: The Three Astronauts, The Bomb and the General, and The Gnomes of Gnu.

All three books are subtly political. The Three Astronauts teaches lessons in tolerance and multiculturalism. Like a bad bar joke, an American, Russian, and Chinese astronaut walk onto a distant planet and discover they’re not so different. The Bomb and the General preaches pacifism. The story spotlights sentient atoms stuffed inside an atomic bomb. The particles are sad, so in the dead of night, they escape. When the weapon drops, nothing happens, and humans give up on war. The Gnomes of Gnu is Eco’s environmental fable. As earth’s climate changes, a space explorer searches for a new planet. He discovers the planet Gnu and meets native space gnomes. The gnomes reject human “civilization” because it already ruined one planet.

9. T.S. Eliot

Like Joyce, T.S. Eliot couldn’t resist a good cat story. In the early 1930s, Eliot mailed multiple cat tales to his godchildren, writing under the pseudonym Old Possum. In 1939, those stories were published in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Here’s an excerpt.

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger strips and
Leopard spots
All day she sits upon the stair on the steps or on the mat
She sits and sits and sits and sits—and that’s what makes
A Gumbie Cat!

Andrew Lloyd Webber called Practical Cats a “childhood favorite,” and it inspired his long-running musical, CATS.

10. Gertrude Stein

In 1938, Young Scott Books asked a handful of famous authors if they would try writing a children’s book. Most refused, but Gertrude Stein happily agreed: She had a half-written manuscript already sitting in her desk. The draft became The World is Round, a symbolic adventure about a girl who tries to make sense of the world. Here’s a taste:

Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around. Everywhere there was somewhere and everywhere there were men women children dogs cows wild pigs little rabbits cats lizards and animals. That is the way it was. And everybody dogs cats sheep rabbits and lizards and children all wanted to tell everybody all about it and they wanted to tell all about themselves.

Rambling but philosophical, Stein even planted her famous phrase “A rose is a rose is a rose,” which she regularly sprinkled in her work. In The World is Round, the girl—named Rose—carves it around a tree, forming an endless loop.

11. James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On The Mountain is the story of a boy growing up in Harlem. Baldwin’s children’s book, Little Man Little Man, tells a similar tale. A 4-year old named TJ—based on Baldwin’s young nephew—plays ball in the streets. The story is a collage of his observations, written in a style that “blends black English and child’s talk.” Here’s an excerpt:

“A couple of times a car almost run him over. That ain’t nothing. He going to be a bigger star than Hank Aaron one of these days. Soon as he gets a little bit older, he going to jump the roofs.”

12. Leo Tolstoy

Original scan by Maria Popova/Brain Pickings

Tolstoy loved kids. At 21, the aristocrat opened a school for peasants on his estate. While writing Anna Karenina, he started working on schoolbooks for his students. Tolstoy wrote about his childhood, adapted Aesop’s Fables and Hindu stories, and penned playful fairy tales like Ivan the Fool and The Pheasant and the Cucumbers. When Tolstoy finished, he read the tales to his toughest critics—the tots at his schools. He asked them for pointers and reworked the stories until the tough crowd softened. Tolstoy eventually published the stories in two primers, the ABC Book and the New ABC Book, which became staples at Russian schools.

Interested in what other authors cooked up? Visit the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie.

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BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

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7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
Lucien Aigner/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

albert einstein at home circa 1925
Albert Einstein poses at home in 1925 with a mix of old and new books.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Keeping up with current events and the latest buzz-worthy book from the bestseller list is no small feat, but Albert Einstein thought it was vital to leave some room for older works, too. Otherwise, you’d be “completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of [your] times,” he wrote in a 1952 journal article [PDF].

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses,” he wrote.

2. Don’t jump too quickly from book to book // Seneca

seneca the younger
Seneca the Younger, ready to turn that unwavering gaze on a new book.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman Stoic philosopher and trusted advisor of Emperor Nero, believed that reading too wide a variety in too short a time would keep the teachings from leaving a lasting impression on you. “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind,” he wrote in a letter to Roman writer Lucilius.

If you’re wishing there were a good metaphor to illustrate this concept, take your pick from these gems, courtesy of Seneca himself:

“Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.”

3. Shop at secondhand bookstores // Virginia Woolf

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf wishing she were in a bookstore.
Culture Club/Getty Images

In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf described the merits of shopping in secondhand bookstores, where the works “have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

According to Woolf, browsing through used books gives you the chance to stumble upon something that wouldn’t have risen to the attention of librarians and booksellers, who are often much more selective in curating their collections than secondhand bookstore owners. To give us an example, she imagined coming across the shabby, self-published account of “a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it.”

“In this random miscellaneous company,” she wrote, “we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

4. You can skip outdated scientific works, but not old literature // Edward Bulwer-Lytton

edward bulwer-lytton
An 1831 portrait of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, smug at the thought of people reading his novels for centuries to come.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Though his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime, 19th-century British novelist and Parliamentarian Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now mainly known for coining the phrase It was a dark and stormy night, the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It’s a little ironic that Bulwer-Lytton’s books aren’t very widely read today, because he himself was a firm believer in the value of reading old literature.

“In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest,” he wrote in his 1863 essay collection, Caxtoniana. “The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

To Bulwer-Lytton, fiction couldn't ever be obsolete, because it contained timeless themes about human nature and society that came back around in contemporary works; in other words, you can’t disprove fiction. You can, however, disprove scientific theories, so Bulwer-Lytton thought it best to stick to the latest works in that field. (That said, since scientists use previous studies to inform their work, you can still learn a ton about certain schools of thought by delving into debunked ideas—plus, it’s often really entertaining to see what people used to believe.) 

5. Check out authors’ reading lists for book recommendations // Mortimer J. Adler

mortimer j. adler in 1983
Mortimer J. Adler in 1983, happy to read the favorite works of his favorite authors.
George Rose/Getty Images

In his 1940 guide How to Read a Book, American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler talked about the importance of choosing books that other authors consider worth reading. “The great authors were great readers,” he explained, “and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Adler went on to clarify that this would probably matter most in the philosophy field, “because philosophers are great readers of each other,” and it’s easier to grasp a concept if you also know what inspired it. While you don’t necessarily have to read everything a novelist has read in order to fully understand their own work, it’s still a good way to get quality book recommendations from a trusted source. If your favorite author mentions a certain novel that really made an impression on them, there’s a pretty good chance you’d enjoy it, too.

6. Reading so-called guilty pleasures is better than reading nothing // Mary Wollstonecraft

mary wollstonecraft in 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, apparently demonstrating that a book with blank pages is worth even less than a novel.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the 18th-century writer, philosopher, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, just about all novels fell into the category of “guilty pleasures” (though she didn’t call them that). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she disparaged the “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.”

If her judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s probably because it’s taken out of its historical context. Wollstonecraft definitely wasn’t the only one who considered novels to be low-quality reading material compared to works of history and philosophy, and she was also indirectly criticizing society for preventing women from seeking more intellectual pursuits. If 21st-century women were confined to watching unrealistic, highly edited dating shows and frowned upon for trying to see 2019’s Parasite or the latest Ken Burns documentary, we might sound a little bitter, too.

Regardless, Wollstonecraft still admitted that even guilty pleasures can help expand your worldview. “Any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement, and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers,” she wrote. In other words, go forth and enjoy your beach read.

7. You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read // Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt in office in 1905
Theodore Roosevelt pauses for a quick photo before getting back to his book in 1905.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Theodore Roosevelt might have lived his own life in an exceptionally regimented fashion, but his outlook on reading was surprisingly free-spirited. Apart from being a staunch proponent of finding at least a few minutes to read every single day—and starting young—he thought that most of the details should be left up to the individual.

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be,” he wrote in his autobiography, and rejected the idea that there’s a definitive “best books” list that everyone should abide by. Instead, Roosevelt recommended choosing books on subjects that interest you and letting your mood guide you to your next great read. He also wasn’t one to roll his eyes at a happy ending, explaining that “there are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple.”

In short, Roosevelt would probably advise you to see what Seneca, Albert Einstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other great minds had to say about reading, and then make your own decisions in the end.