Picture Book Plagiarism?
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Misery Is When Someone Recycles Your Book Idea



The author and publisher Harriet Ziefert has taken full responsibility for the slip-up regarding A Snake Is Totally Tail. (See the Chicken Spaghetti post, below.)  Roger Sutton, the editor-in-chief of the esteemed Horn Book, weighs in on the matter here, writing on his blog, Read Roger.

I do not think this is a case of knowing plagiarism--no one could be that venal and stupid. As I see it, the problem is one of the dangers of boutique publishing--Blue Apple, editorially speaking, is essentially a one-woman show, and while Harriet had clearly forgotten she knew the book, there was not the series of filters, nor sets of eyes, that the book would have been subjected to at a larger house.

But what about the following situation?

In the sixties the publisher Paul S. Eriksson printed some very popular humor books by Suzanne Heller: Misery, More Misery, Misery Loves Company, and the 1970 anthology Misery for Everybody. (There could be more; these were the ones I tracked down online.)

I remember Misery from my parents' bookshelves. The books consisted of line drawings of children with captions such as  "Misery is when you're riding in the car and everyone smells dog doody and you discover it's on your shoes," and "Misery is when you have an ice cream cone and a balloon and a terrible itch: all at the same time." One cartoon in the original was about having to pee when you have on a snow suit, which I found to be the height of hilarity.

Harriet Ziefert's press, Blue Apple Books, issued the picture books Misery Is a Spider in the Bathtub in 2004 and Misery Is a Smell in Your Backpack in 2005. The latter features simple drawings and quotations like "Misery is when no one but your dog wants to hang out with you." The first book  is structured similarly: "Misery is when your brother shows you his chewed food." The text is credited to Ziefert in Misery...Backpack and to someone else in Misery...Bathtub.

The used-book resource Abebooks.com lists more than a hundred copies of Suzanne Heller's various Miseries (and they're quite cheap); I got one of the Heller quotations from that site.  

No one has a copyright on the words "misery" and "is," of course, but does Blue Apple Books  really need to recycle somone else's old idea? If I were the publisher of the later series and I knew another one like it existed, would I have published an updated version without at least crediting the original? 


Thanks to Mom for the editorial assistance. We laughed as she read the 1964 Misery over the phone. It's truly funny. The book-cover graphics at the top of this post  are from abebooks.com and Amazon.

A previous Chicken Spaghetti post about Harriet Ziefert's A Snake is Totally Tail can be found at "Picture Book Plagarism?"


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Wow, Susan. I'm stunned.

There are so many aspiring picture book authors with NEW ideas. Why "recycle" the past? I really don't get it and, given the editor involved here, I feel kind of devastated by this story (more so than the Frey story. All memoirs are lies to one degree or another. I've never read them as "truth.")

Excellent work on your part, however. Truly excellent.

"There are so many aspiring picture book authors with NEW ideas." That's exactly what I was thinking, Kelly.

Speaking of memoirs, I had to put down Augusten Burroughs's "Running with Scissors" after a while because it was becoming too over-the-top. I remember telling a friend, "I just don't believe it any more."

Methinks Ziefert may just be venal and stupid. Once is a mistake, twice...hmmm...

I was just doing my "don't plagiarize" lesson with 8th grade students a week or so ago. I always share plagiarism stories of "real" authors and speakers (sad that there are so many) so they realize even the "big" names do it and THEY ARE ALWAYS FOUND OUT!

Yes this is what she does. All the time. And thinks it's completely ok -- she uses out-of-print books for "inspiration." I suspect that if the author's backlist is studied carefully, more plagiarisms will rise to the surface....

I do not think Harriet has "taken full responsibility" at all. Twelve out of 23 lines of her book are WORD FOR WORD COPIES of Judi Barrett's book. There is NO WAY those sentences were resting in her subconsious.
Come on.
How gullible are we in the children's book world?

I can't speak to Harriet Ziefert's subconscious. I could try, though, "Hellloooo, helllloooo." Ahem. Anyway. The AP quoted Ziefert in an article I linked in a previous post; it is that statement--and the fact that she withdrew the book from the market--to which I am referring. The AP quoted her as saying,
"Since I am both the author and the publisher of this book, I must, of course, take full responsibility for the text."

"How gullible are we...?" Not too. Not too at all.

I found this post in a search for the original books....didn't know the author...thanks for posting, now I can find them!

You're welcome! Thanks for dropping by!

People have told me that there are, in circulation, "Misery" books, based on my childhood memories, which I wrote in the 1970's. I am shocked someone has published books under their name, with this identical format. I feel they are stealing something which is mine and belongs to me. I would be happy to discuss this matter.

Suzanne, I do not know if the books are currently on the market. (You'd probably have to do some research to track them down.) I wrote and published this post almost two years ago, and haven't heard anything on the matter since, with the exception of the comments above.

All best wishes,

I am the suzanne heller of the original "Misery" books. I am happy my books have stood the test of time. But, someone has made a no-no in lifting something that was mine and then calling it theirs.

I agree.

My parents had one of the original Misery books. I used to look at it a lot.

My grandparents used to read that book to me. I'm 44, born in 1964. I've always considered it my favorite childhood book, and I just ordered it from B&N (used, of course) to read to my grandbaby, due in June. I'm so excited! When I first googled it and the "new" one came up, I was like "pooh pooh." Only the original will do.

As a child, i was allowed to (carefully) read copies of Suzanne Heller's original Misery books - she autographed them as a gift to my mother, who passed away in 1998. We still treasure those original books in our house, and my son will be allowed to read them when he is old enough to respect them.

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