BY JOY LANZENDORFER
Some children’s books are so original they seem to have sprung from the author’s imagination alone. But no matter the genre, writers use personal experiences in their work. It may surprise you to learn these beloved children’s stories are actually inspired by real life. All are vital reminders that you never know what will spark a story.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl: As a child, Dahl was a chocolate taster for Cadbury. The candy company sent his school boxes of experimental chocolate bars for the boys to sample and grade. Dahl fantasized about working in the chocolate factory, surrounded by pots of bubbling candy. The memory revisited him more than 30 years later when pondering plots for his next book.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White: White’s farm in Maine was the setting for Charlotte’s Web. One day he saw a spider making an egg sack in his barn. He cut the sack down, put it in a box, and brought it to his New York apartment. Soon the eggs hatched and spiders emerged, stringing lines all over—much to his delight. “We all lived together happily for a couple of weeks, and then somebody whose duty it was to dust my dresser balked, and I broke up the show,” White wrote. He immortalized the experience by creating Charlotte, and by letting her offspring live in his barn cellar.
Horton Hears A Who! by Dr. Seuss: During World War II, Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel, drew anti-Japanese cartoons as American propaganda. In the 1950s, Seuss went to Japan to write about the effects of post-war efforts on children there. He visited many schools and began to regret his previous views. He wrote Horton Hears a Who!, with its memorable refrain, “A person’s a person no matter how small,” as an apology, of sorts, for his prejudice.
Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary: Cleary grew up near Klickitat Street in Portland, Ore., where she set most of her books. One day she saw a little girl walk by with a stick of butter. “She had been sent to the neighborhood store for a pound of butter,” Cleary said in an interview. “In those days, it was all in one piece, not in cubes. And she had opened the butter and was eating it.” From this memory, Cleary created Ramona, her most popular character.
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: This story about a boy who travels to a land of strange beasts is based on Sendak’s childhood. His Jewish aunts and uncles would visit his home and say things to the children like, “You look so good, we could eat you up.” Sendak and his siblings poked fun at their relatives’ nose hair, moles and other physical defects—details that he revisited years later when creating the lovable, memorable wild things.
Joy Lanzendorfer has been published in The Atlantic, Mental Floss, Salon and others. Follow her on Twitter @JoyLanzendorfer. This article originally appeared in the March/April 2016 Writer’s Digest.