Joan W(insor) Blos (1928-)
Personal, SidelightsAddresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Autobiography Feature
Agent—Curtis Brown Ltd., 10 Astor Place, New York, NY 10003.
Bank Street College of Education, New York, NY, associate in publications division and member of faculty, 1958-70; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, lecturer in juvenile literature at School of Education, 1972-80. Volunteer reviewer of children's books for Connecticut Association of Mental Health, 1954-56.
John Newbery Medal from American Library Association, American Book Award, both 1980, and Best Books of the Year designation, School Library Journal, and English-Speaking Union Ambassador Book designation, all for A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-32; honorary doctorate from Bank Street College of Education, New York City, 2002.
In the City, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1964.
(With Betty Miles) People Read, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1964.
(With Betty Miles) Joe Finds a Way, L. W. Singer (Syracuse, NY), 1967.
"It's Spring," She Said, Knopf (New York, NY), 1968.
(With Betty Miles) Just Think!, Knopf (New York, NY), 1971.
A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-32 (historical fiction), Scribner (New York, NY), 1979.
Martin's Hats, illustrated by Marc Simont, Morrow (New York, NY), 1984.
Brothers of the Heart: A Story of the Old Northwest, 1837-1838 (historical fiction), Scribner (New York, NY), 1985.
Old Henry (picture book), illustrated by Stephen Gammell, Morrow (New York, NY), 1987.
The Grandpa Days, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 1989.
One Very Best Valentine's Day, illustrated by Emanuel Schongut, Little Simon (New York, NY), 1989.
Lottie's Circus, illustrated by Irene Trivas, Morrow (New York, NY), 1989.
The Heroine of the Titanic: A Tale Both True and Otherwise of the Life of Molly Brown, illustrated by Tennessee Dixon, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
A Seed, a Flower, a Minute, an Hour, illustrated by Hans Poppel, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1992.
Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme, Scribner (New York, NY), 1994.
The Hungry Little Boy, illustrated by Dena Schutzer, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.
Nellie Bly's Monkey: His Remarkable Story in His Own Words, illustrated by Catherine Stock, Morrow (New York, NY), 1996.
Bedtime!, illustrated by Stephen Lambert, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.
Hello, Shoes!, illustrated by Ann Boyajian, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1999.
(Adaptor) Margaret Wise Brown, The Days before Now: An Autobiographical Note, illustrated by Thomas B. Allen, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1994.
Brothers of the Heart (play; based on novel of the same title), performed by Wild Swan Theater, 1999.
Also author of unpublished presentations, including "Historical Fiction: Why Read It? Why Write It? Why Bother?," "45 Years Later and Still in Love with Picture Books," "You Be the Mommy: The Developmental Importance of Imagined Experience," and "Charlotte Forten Grimke and the Grimke Sisters: The Converging and Nonstereotpyical Lives of Three 19th Century Women."
Contributor of articles and reviews to periodicals, including School Library Journal, New Outlook, Child Analysis, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Merrill-Palmer Quarterly. U.S. editor of Children's Literature in Education, 1976-81. Author of introduction to Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Aladdin (New York, NY), 1999. Contributor to books, including Ann Arbor (W)rites: A Community Memoir, 2004.
Dear Cousin Sallie, companion historical novel to A Gathering of Days and Brothers of the Heart.
Joan W. Blos
Joan W. Blos contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
It is a wintry afternoon. The street is dark and snowy. A mother and her four-year-old daughter make their way to the library, bent against the wind. Up the shallow steps they go, pausing at the heavy wooden door, then they enter a large bright room. At the desk a librarian stamps books with her pencil. It is a special pencil with a little outrigged stamp. She uses it to mark the dates when the books must be returned. People sit at tables. They turn pages of books.
I am the child, and the mother is mine. And from that time, long years ago, I am, have been, and will always be a lover of libraries.
We go into the children's room, find Ola, the book we seek. From its cover a boy's round face stares out of an old-fashioned window. The window has many small panes of glass, their corners filled with snow. Ola will travel, imaginarily, into a vast and snowy world and so, in my way, will I.
In telling this story of my life I have chosen to tell of the libraries I've loved, letting their images signify its different, evolving parts.
First, then, the public library of which I have just spoken. It was located in Warwick, New York, a small town about seventy-five miles northwest of New York City. My parents and I were living nearby and my father, just graduated from medical school, was serving as medical director and psychiatrist at a school for delinquent boys. Newly in operation, the school represented a hopeful experiment by the New York State Department of Social Welfare in conjunction with Columbia University's medical school and its Teachers College. Instead of punishing delinquent boys in the then-traditional manner, the new program was designed to help boys who stole, or were often truant from school, to become happier individuals and better citizens. Because it was thought wise to separate them from their difficult and disruptive home environments all of the boys lived at the school. True to the thinking of the day it was called a training school and there, in addition to regular classes, these twelve-to sixteen-year-old boys were encouraged to learn new skills, such as printing and carpentry.
My parents were both idealistic believers in the power of education and the educative process. Therefore they had accepted the challenge of living on the grounds of a public institution with their only child. I was three years old when we moved there, nearly seven when we left. Interesting though it appears in retrospect, my memories do not concern the school directly. It would have been very much in character for my parents to have been deliberately vague in what they chose to tell me about why the boys were there. (Who knows what a three-year-old might have been led to imagine as the sort of badness for which you were taken away?) So, for me, the school functioned largely as a pleasant background to our family's life. I remember the nearby countryside explored with the wife and daughters of another member of the staff and my teacher mother. In the fall we searched for bittersweet vines growing on old stone fences. We picked, or purchased, colorful Indian corn. What we ever did with it, I can no longer remember. Milk was brought by a milkman and delivered in round glass bottles. On winter mornings the milk might be frozen solid and the caps on the bottles lifted off by the rising column of the freezing milk.
My mother, attempting to make a learning opportunity out of this unusual occurrence, would try to explain to me, age three, that things get bigger when they freeze and so the milk had climbed the necks of the bottles and pushed the caps right off. This remained mysterious. As I understood the process, freezing was how you got ice cubes in your refrigerator or what made it possible for the men to drive cars onto our lake and fish through holes in the ice. Frozen was stiff, not bigger.
Spring was the hatching of baby chicks—rows and rows and rows of them—in metal incubators. There was also the smell of manure in the fields, and unpaved roads turning slick with yellow mud as the snowdrifts melted. My mother, although city-born, had a great sense of the environment, both natural and social. It must have given her special pleasure to show these things to me, and the kindness with which I remember them tells that I sensed that pleasure. Later I became aware of how hard it had been for her, a successful and committed teacher, to interrupt her career and to live in a situation where she had so little place. But that was later.
My father, on the other hand, was much engaged in his work. From time to time distinguished consultants of one kind and another would come out to see the school. On these occasions they would review the program with my father and be entertained at lunches prepared for them by my mother. Dimly I see my four-and five-year-old self offering bowls of celery sticks and olives to the gathered guests.
We went to the library often in those years and both of my parents, as I recall, read aloud to me. I have already mentioned Ola, by the d'Aulaires. There was also Marjorie Flack's Angus, and then Angus and the Ducks. Not long after came Little Pear, about a Chinese boy, and then Little Fox, about an Indian boy living on Manhattan Island before the time of the Dutch. From a small, orange-covered copy of One Hundred Best Poems for Boys and Girls we read my favorites over and over again—some of them so often that I still know them nearly by heart. But the book that was most central to our lives was the Here and Now Story Book. The book, with stories by Lucy Sprague Mitchell and drawings by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, was first published in 1921, the year in which he received the first Newbery Medal ever given, for The Story of Mankind.
Mrs. Mitchell, a gifted innovator, had played an active role in the establishment of the experimental school at which my mother had taught. The stories collected in her book were experimental efforts too. Mrs. Mitchell firmly believed that children younger than seven are more interested in the here-and-now world that surrounds them than in anything else. She also thought that grown-up parents, teachers, and writers should give young children every possible help in learning about their world. She believed that stories for young children should be compatible with the language used by the children themselves, and in order to learn about this language she spent a great deal of time listening to the stories spontaneously told by children and writing them down. The Here and Now, as we called it, included simple, repetitive stories for two-year-olds and more elaborate ones for five-year-olds. At three I loved the story about the five little babies—one red, one black, one yellow, one white, and one tan—"who just came that way" and were loved by their respective mothers. (I notice that this story was omitted from a later edition of the book when people had become more thoughtful, but maybe not much wiser, about things like race and color.) At four a story called "How the Engine Learned the Knowing Song" taught something about patience as well as the requirements of locomotives and was one of my particular favorites. Mrs. Mitchell, a tireless teacher, provided her book with a lengthy introduction in which she explained to parents, teachers, amid writers her particular approach to stories for young children.
Little did I know, or care, about the theory behind them. Mrs. Mitchell had a strong, dramatic flair, a fine sense of language and of story itself. I think this is what made her writing so much livelier than the work of many of her followers and imitators—and it was not many years before I exchanged roles with my parents and began to read the stories aloud to my two young cousins.
Cousins. Eventually there were four of us: a boy, who was closest to me in age, and the girls we called "the littles." From the time I was seven until I went to college we lived in the same house or in adjacent houses in New York City's Greenwich Village. Our families were very close—my father's best friend having married my mother's older sister—and together we children played and fought and often (and loudly) protested the injustice of early bedtimes. We not only lived near each other and attended the same schools, we spent summers together as well. When, in tenth grade, I was required to write an autobiographical essay, my opening sentence stated, "I never had a brother or a sister yet I was not an only child." But this gets ahead of the story.
When we left Warwick and returned to the city to live I was not quite seven years old. My mother went back to teaching. My father, after a year of commuting back and forth, accepted a job in the New York City schools. As a psychiatrist with the Bureau of Child Guidance he would have the opportunity, as he saw it, to work with troubled and difficult children before they became delinquent. And I, with curly blond hair tightly braided, had not only entered the City and Country School, I had found a wonderful library at the heart of that school's life.
Margaret Ernst was the librarian's name. She had a deep voice and small hands. She had created a library in a room that might once have been the back parlor of one of the four brick residences that were converted into school buildings when the school had moved there from its original location in the early 1920s. The library had three tall windows that looked out on the combined backyards of the four buildings—two on West Twelfth Street and the two behind them on Thirteenth—that had been substantially remodeled to meet the needs of the school. Divided by fencing and overhung with a net to protect nearby windows from high flies and wild throws, "the Yard," as it was known, gave the school outdoor play space that was both ample and contained. From the library one looked down on all of this and also the long wooden passageway that helped to partition off the yards and connected the two pairs of buildings. Wooden bookshelves completely surrounded the room, stopping only for the doors and being snugly fitted between the three tall windows. In the center of the room was a long rectangular table surrounded by high-backed chairs where we sat when using the reference collection for our research projects. Between the bookshelves and this oversized table was a row of cushioned wicker armchairs in which to sit while reading. The younger children came to the library on schedule; the older ones signed up for it. The chairs were always occupied.
How I loved that room! It seems to me that in those years I was always in the middle of one book or another and that Mrs. Ernst possessed uncanny knowledge of each child's reading interests. She led us onward easily, encouraging the slower readers and challenging the skillful. We accepted without surprise that she knew books like Caddie Woodlawn when our studies centered on the westward movement, and The Cloister and the Hearth when we got to the Middle Ages. But there was time along the way, although not necessarily in the order remembered, for Lad, A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune; Stephen Meader's boys' stories, which I liked as much as my cousin did; Sherlock Holmes; Noel Streatfield's "shoe books"; and Doris Gates's Blue Willow.
Other books came not from the school but were gifts from my parents, my father especially. I remember Cornelia Meigs's The Covered Bridge, Carol Ryrie Brink's Caddie Woodlawn, Ruth Sawyer's Roller Skates, and Lavinia R. Davis's Keys to the City. The Winston dictionary that is still my favorite was carefully chosen as a thirteenth-birthday present because it gave the most detailed information on the derivation of words. There were books of poetry, some still on my shelves, such as This Singing World with poems selected by Louis Untemeyer, and Selected Poems for Young People by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Later came Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer-Maria Rilke, The White Cliffs by Alice Duer Miller, and The Murder of Lidice, again Edna St. Vincent Millay.
One summer my father had an interesting present for me. It was a copy of Jane Eyre, but instead of the paper jackets and hard covers I was used to, this book had covers of stiff paper that were coated with a kind of cellophane. Its shape was unusual too, a small, neat rectangle about the size of an ordinary jacket pocket. It cost twenty-five cents, which was remarkably inexpensive even in those days. I had just seen my first paperback, or Pocketbook, the copyrighted term by which such books were then known.
In the year I turned eleven Elizabeth Enright, the author, came to speak to our class. Except for Mrs. Mitchell, which was somehow different, this was my first meeting with an author, someone whose books I had read and loved. I remember exactly where she stood, and where I sat. I remember the brightness of that sunny morning. I remember her dress, pale green and made of silk, and that she was lovely, blond, and tall. The only thing I do not remember, though, is what she said to us.
The City and Country School (we called it C&C) was unusual but not unique. In New York City and elsewhere a number of experimental or progressive schools had been established in the 1920s, often by followers of the educator-philosopher John Dewey. It was a privilege to attend such a school in the 1930s and 1940s but I don't think any of us thought about it that way or felt self-conscious about it. In addition to the school's rigorous academic program there were opportunities to work with clay and paint and music and the expectation that one would do so. It was also assumed that girls would work in the carpentry shop; boys take part in cooking. An after-school program, for those who wished to join it or whose parents were working, gave us more time still. Were we naive or was it that these activities were meaningful to us? I know we never considered that there might be reasons such as our parents' convenience for extending the school day.
Another distinctive thing about the school was the way in which classes were referred to by the chronological age of their members rather than by numbers referring to grade level. The system was so logical I don't think any of us ever questioned it. For some reason, possibly to teach us about an alternative numbering system, Roman numerals were used for this purpose. Thus nine-year-olds were in the IX's, tens were in the X's.
I am sure that everyone who ever attended C&C remembers the job program. It was as central to the life of the school as it was to the philosophy of education on which the school was grounded. It unified things by giving each class, and each member of each class, the responsibility for participating usefully in the life of the school community and it was enormously effective. The nine-year-old IX's had the supply store, for example, selling pencils and paper and rulers and protractors as required by all the classes. Real money was used, accuracy to the penny was expected, and we learned many an arithmetical concept and process as we kept accounts, checked our stock, and determined how many pads would be needed if each of six classes ordered twelve pads. In the XI's the social studies program had to do with European history. But the XI's did more than study the importance of Gutenberg's fifteenth-century invention of movable type. The makings of a small print shop were made part of the classroom equipment, so that the XI's could learn how to set and distribute type. Then, using both manual and electric presses, they provided the school with letterhead paper, memo forms, and library cards. The culminating project of the XI's school year was the publication, from start to finish, of the school magazine, and I now suspect that the forgotten content of Miss Enright's visit had something to do with editing or the production of books in the real world. The school, which greatly valued what children did, never confused it with adult activity. This is a fine distinction which I think is often missed. In any event, the magazine had contributions representing the entire school, not just the XI's, and that is where I was first published.
Paradoxes and anachronisms seem to attach themselves to my life experience in those growing-up years. I have already mentioned the presence of cousins as modifying my sense of myself as an only child. Similarly, my school experience was so different from that of my friends and contemporaries that now, when we match reminiscences, it is almost hard to believe that we were going to school at the same time and in the same country! Others recall formal recitations with dread. I remember original plays based on topics we had studied. (One year, the X's, I was Galileo's mother; in the XIII's, just before graduation, I was the outspoken representative of the NAACP.) My friends speak of punitive teachers. We respected ours, and liked some more than others. But we certainly did not fear them and we mostly called them by nicknames—Ollie, Delly, Braddy—derived from their last names. Friends recall how they would contrive to miss a day of school. For us the worst possible punishment was to be sent home from school.
Further paradoxes. A city child, I walked to school by myself once I was old enough to cross streets independently. The neighborhood I walked through was congenial and residential. I knew the owner of the five-and-ten; in turn, Mr. Feldman knew me and my parents and my cousins and how we were related. So did the grocer and the butcher. Ten years old when World War II began, no one of my acquaintance was personally endangered by combat. Even more strange is that although our family was Jewish, and grandparents on both sides had left close relatives behind when, as young people, they immigrated to this country, the Nazi crimes against the Jews were seldom discussed in my presence and never in personal terms.
Two days before my thirteenth birthday the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. On my birthday, December 9, the rumor of a possible air attack drove us out of the school and into a building across the street believed to be stronger, thus safer. I found it exciting. Looking back I realize that was the only time World War II had any kind of direct reality for me or was associated with danger. For the rest, I have some memory of food stamps and gasoline rationing and a blackout drill or two. I believe that my father volunteered as an air-raid warden. An uncle was in the Army Medical Corps as a biochemist. One time he came home on leave with a very expensive new pen purchased at the post. It was not a fountain pen, did not have to be refilled with ink. Instead, as he explained it, there was a little ball-like mechanism that turned as you wrote with it. In this way a substance similar to, but thicker than, ink was continually brought down to the surface of the paper from a special cartridge, or container, lodged within the pen. It was said to be capable of writing underwater but it was too expensive a novelty for any of us to risk the experiment. Today, of course, ballpoints are everywhere and fountain pens are owned and used only by rich eccentrics.
I think it was in that same wartime summer that my cousin Dick and I were given a deck of cards on which were shown the silhouettes of enemy and friendly warplanes. The object was to learn their names and so, in the unlikely event that we should ever see them in flight, be prepared to identify them by name. For the rest, the war was newspaper headlines and newsreels seen at neighborhood movie theaters between the double features: Mrs. Miniver, and Van Johnson making the most of his thirty seconds over Tokyo. It did not make sense to me then, and I do not see now, that we might ever have been called upon to serve as airplane spotters.
My memories of the high-school years are the only ones that do not include a particular library loved for particular qualities in a particular way. The school did have a library, and a good one. In fact it was presided over by Anne Eaton, who was well-known in the world of children's libraries and literature. No matter. Miss Eaton was not my beloved Mrs. Ernst, and I didn't love her library either.
In high school I had a number of excellent teachers. For English there was Helen Fern Daringer, author of a number of successful books for children and also our grammar text, and Benjamin Stolper, writer of published stories and a wonderfully dramatic interpreter of stories, poems, and plays.
"Blood all over the carpet," he scolded, restating Lady Macbeth's response to the murder of the king. "How could you have been so messy?"
As for Miss Daringer, I respected her—with her precise manner, Emily Dickinson hairstyle, and neatly tailored clothes you couldn't not respect Miss Daringer. But despite her best efforts, and my earnest ones, I never became competent at diagramming sentences and the intricacies of grammar elude me to this day. I was good at spelling, though.
In one of the high-school summers, when gasoline was rationed and we could not use the car very much, I learned how to do touch-typing. Again this was a joint project with my cousin, and he and I shared a self-teaching manual and a devilishly frustrating shield that fit over the keyboard so that you couldn't cheat. I do not remember the exact rules by which we turned this activity into a competition between us, but we did. My cousin was faster than I and merely keeping up with him caused me to acquire some bad habits. I also recall that we got bored by the time we reached the last chapter and quit before we mastered the keyboard's top row. The manual contained innumerable practice sentences, including one which carried the reminder: Think before you write, Mr. Orville Brock.
In tenth grade, at the urging of a teacher, I submitted a short story to a competition designed to encourage writing by young people. Publication in a national magazine and a prize of $25 was the reward and I won it. The money was piously invested in a U.S. War Bond (at $18.75) and the balance, if I remember correctly, went to British War Relief. I have absolutely no recollection of what I did with the money I received for the bond when it finally came due. Difficulty in using prize money for pleasure seems to have persisted into my grown-up life. In 1980, when a book I had written topped off winning the Newbery Medal with the American Book Award, I divided the cash prize for the latter between the New York Public Library, in gratitude, and IBBY (International Association for Books for Young People), in admiration.
April 12, 1945. That afternoon a friend called to ask if I knew what had happened and when I said that I did not, she told me that Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been president for twelve of my sixteen years, had just died.
Three weeks later my gentle, forty-six-year-old father, who took great pride in my writing and was its foremost critic, suffered a heart attack. He had just given a talk on the needs of juvenile delinquents in New York City and was leaving the hall. Although promptly taken to a hospital, he died the following day.
The next year, my last at high school, was hardly a happy one. We had sublet our apartment and were living with my mother's sister, who had her own worries to contend with, and her daughter, my young cousin. I studied in preparation for college entrance exams and watched my mother extend her professional life. At school I participated in writing the script and song lyrics for the original, all-school musical we titled "High and Wide." Its sentimental theme and mistaken-identity plot (returning soldier seeks girl he has known only through letters) was no more trite than many commercial ventures of those early postwar days. We gave ours a happy ending, and a gala block-party scene.
In September 1946, having won admission to both Vassar and Sarah Lawrence Colleges, I set off for Vassar, a radical shift of interest, and another library.
A building of tan stone outside and vaulted spaces within, Vassar's library was an impressive building, traditionally academic in style, and more austere than inviting. Actually, I did not use its resources as might have been expected. Quite unexpectedly I became a science major and spent more time in the laboratory than in reading and research.
In retrospect the decision to major in physiology can be seen as a response to a number of influences. For one thing, the physiology faculty was truly outstanding. I, who had taken only required science courses in high school, became fascinated by the revelations of the introductory course. Here was an entirely new kind of esthetic! I was delighted with the elegance and grace of natural law, of regulatory biological mechanisms set into motion by the body's changing needs. I learned to resist the temptations of teleological reasoning (explanations based on outcome rather than cause) and to appreciate the importance of basing one's conclusions on presentable data. Later, I would say that I learned about writing book reviews from doing lab reports: first the premise, then the observations, then the conclusion. In lab reports there were to be no gratuitous generalizations and in book reviews, I strongly believe, there should be no comments either laudatory or critical for which an exact and appropriate referent cannot be identified.
If my newfound interest in physiology exerted a pull toward science, disappointment with courses in the English department seemed to push me away. It was hard to respect myself, the faculty, or my fellow students when I regularly received As with but little preparation. On one unfortunate occasion an improvised comment based solely on what I had heard in class was praised by the instructor as "giving evidence of perceptive and sensitive reading." It came down to the fact that I was doing too well too easily in English and I didn't like knowing I was getting away with it. Besides, doesn't every doctor's daughter want, at one time or another, to be a doctor too? I never embarked on a full premedical course. But I think the connection with my father (plus the medical students I was seeing on weekends in New York) helped to support my interest.
At Vassar my closest friends were a year ahead of me. In order to graduate with them or, more accurately, not to be left behind when they graduated, I undertook an accelerated program that would allow me to finish college in three years. This meant a consistently full course load augmented by staying on at Vassar for what were called spring half-terms and then, over the summer, taking additional courses at Columbia. Although I did what I set out to do, I missed out on many aspects of the undergraduate experience that might have made it a lot more fun and much more meaningful.
Too late to allow me to even consider a change of major I took a half-term course on contemporary American theater. Our instructor had been active in the government's theater program of the 1930s. Her professionalism was apparent and when she read aloud from plays, neither set nor stage was needed. Her readings gave me some of the best moments of "theater" I have ever known. I learned an incalculable amount about the power of language to move, as well as to persuade, in that short semester. We were expected to read two full-length plays a night, and a critical analysis of each (one page, single-spaced) was required for the next day's class. At last I was brought to realize that literature had its own high standards, that nicety and precision were qualities to be valued, and that the notion of the parsimonious statement was not restricted to science.
It was during that same brief semester that I was introduced to e. e. cummings's play him. An off-Broadway production allowed me to see the play then, or soon thereafter, and I also had the opportunity to attend a reading given by cummings at the Ninety-second Street "Y" in New York City. Familiarity with some of the poems he chose to read made it possible for me to realize, as I listened, how his arrangement of words upon a page gave instruction to the reader as to how they ought to sound. Wonderful! And, if one simply relaxed into enjoyment, the poetry within the poems became easier to find. Fascinated by the work, intrigued by the poet, I tentatively began to try to read the play aloud. To my surprise I discovered that friends and roommates liked to listen when I did. Many years later, teaching courses on children's literature, I would find that reading aloud was still something I enjoyed doing and that it made a good demonstration to students, some of whom had not been read to before. Again, as in my experience with cummings, I learned that the important thing is to give one's energy and attention to the meaning of the material. Then emphasis and inflection seem to take care of themselves. In the last few years I have learned to apply the same principle to reading my own work aloud. Now I am doing it more and more often, and less and less self-consciously, during my visits to schools.
When I graduated from college it was as a physiology major with no intention of becoming a physiologist. It took me three years, from June 1949, when I completed my work at Vassar, until the fall of 1952, to establish a new field of interest. It was fortuitous that in the year immediately after college I found work as a classroom assistant in a special nursery school for disturbed but very young children. Attendance at staff seminars and case presentations constituted a privileged and dramatic introduction to psychoanalytic theory. Slowly I was learning that the body, our language, and now the mind itself might be examined and understood.
The next year, following the recommendation of one of the staff members at the school, I became a candidate for the master's degree in psychology at New York's City College. This was an experimental, idealistic program. Its small faculty included some of the leading figures of the day in both experimental and dynamic psychology—busy, prominent persons who were willing to teach evening classes so that students who did not belong to an academic elite could participate. That year I read a lot, worked hard, and decided that psychology, with an emphasis on child development theory, was what I wanted to study.
Leaving an uncompleted M.A. program behind me, I became a doctoral candidate at Yale and simultaneously a research assistant in its Child Study Center. Was it a good move or a poor one? Neither of the programs which took me to New Haven proved congenial settings for me. But it was there that I met Peter Blos, Jr., a first-year medical student. When I found my next favorite library it had more to do with personal reasons than with matters of scholarship.
One November afternoon, not long after our first meeting, we collided at the door to the library just as I was leaving. To my pleasure it turned out that he had been looking for me. It was an unusually mild day for that time of year and he had the idea that we might take our bicycles and ride out into the country.
"You're the person I've been looking for!" he said. And that's how it all began.
A broad balcony filled with library stacks circled the central reading room of Yale's Medical School library. There were long, well-polished tables between the stacks of books and we would meet there, evenings, with books spread out between us, to study and to talk. When the library closed he would walk me home. We discovered that we had grown up in the same neighborhood, gone to similar schools, knew many of the same songs and some of the same people. It was so easy to be together. Maybe it was because we had so much in common that it did not take long for us to feel that we knew each other well. Our decision to be married at the end of his freshman year, just about six months after we met, did not seem at all precipitous.
By the time we left New Haven three years later it had become clear that academic psychology and I were not a good match. But employment in the pediatric play program sponsored by Yale's School of Nursing (I worked with child patients directly and did some teaching of student nurses) brought me, in the characteristic and circuitous way of such things, to children's literature.
Suddenly there was a place where all I had learned about child development, all my interest in language, and all my love of books could at last come together. Since 1954 I have been a teacher, a critic, a teacher who sometimes wrote, and now a writer who sometimes teaches. But I have never lost my interest in this wonderful field or wished to enter another.
Shortly before our return to New York City I reregistered as an M.A. candidate at City College and devised a study on children's responses to books and the capacity of (trained) adults to predict those responses. It was also in our final year in New Haven that our son was born. As a result of these concurrent events my one-year-old sat on a classroom table and played with chalk while I, at my final conference with my thesis advisor, discussed the statistical significance of my interview data. I was grateful to them both.
From New Haven we moved our small family to New York City, where my husband completed his medical training, began psychoanalytic training and private practice, and our daughter was born.
Parenthood, and the big old-fashioned library on Ninety-sixth Street with the children's room on the second floor, reached by a wide oak stairway. The librarians no longer used those wonderful pencils of my childhood. But neither was it the age of computerized checkouts and magnetically protected books. At the Ninety-sixth Street library there were low oak tables at which the children could read and, on several occasions, we attended traditional storyreading hours, complete with ritual candles. Although we used the library fairly regularly, I do not think any of us ever came to feel terribly keenly about it. In part this was because we were then living uptown, where the library was located, but the children attended school downtown, where we had lived before. So our sense of neighborhood was very much divided and the library never had a chance to become a center. Recently, though, saved in an old leather wallet, I found my library card and my daughter's. I had clearly been reluctant to part with either one of them after we moved away.
During the years about which I have been telling, 1959 to 1970, my work with children's books and literature became more and more important. What made the difference was my connection with Bank Street College of Education, an independent institution dedicated to a progressive point of view in education and the five-faceted development of that point of view through research, demonstration, field service, education, and publication. My mother and aunt were both members of the faculty there, directing the Teacher Education and Research Divisions respectively. And Lucy Sprague Mitchell, who had written my well-loved Here and Now Story Book, was still active in the life of the institution she had helped to establish, although well past retirement age.
I began by working part-time in the Publications Division. "Publications" had been a special interest of Mrs. Mitchell's and the office still contained the oldfashioned sofa on which she had liked to work. At that time our daughter was still too young to attend so much as a nursery-school program and so, when other arrangements failed, I would bring her along with me. Most of the time Mrs. Mitchell's sofa was piled with papers and manuscripts but these, it turned out, could be cleared away when a small child needed a nap.
It was a wonderful work situation for me—warm, responsive, and collegial. Beyond that, it was exciting for me to be associated with people who had been Mrs. Mitchell's students. Among them were Irma Simonton Black and Claudia Lewis, who could still tell stories about "Brownie," as Margaret Wise Brown was known to them, and her famous Kerry Blue dogs. Ruth Krauss and Eve Merriam, who had also been members of the Writers' Laboratory when Mrs. Mitchell directed it, dropped in from time to time. On one well-remembered occasion a writer I judged to be about my age read aloud a story that she had just completed. I remember thinking that the story was a very good one but also that it was the kind of thing I could try to write. This is my first memory of Betty Miles. I have admired her work and valued our friendship for more than thirty years now. So it is pleasant to record that her story, when published, became the picture book Having a Friend.
Work in the Publications Division had three parts: writing, reviewing, and teaching. At that time our major writing project was the collaborative development of a basal reading series for grades one to three. Our emphasis was to be on content rather than phonetics, linguistics, or word recognition as the basis of reading instruction. Part of the concept was that we would provide story material more relevant to the lives and interests of inner-city children than the all-white characters and affluent settings of traditional readers. In the early 1960s this was a radical idea and it was not easy to find a publisher willing to take the risk. Then, in 1963, Macmillan took on the challenge, and the series, later transferred to the Houghton Mifflin Company, started out as the Bank Street-Macmillan Readers.
Taking the city itself as the subject, I was largely responsible for the first pre-primer. "One house. Two houses. Three houses," I wrote. "Many houses. Many, many houses." Then the same thing for streets. Then the first section concluded, "Many houses. Many streets. One city." Together Betty Miles and I did the second pre-primer, which was called People Read. All of us contributed stories to the volumes that followed and, following the leadership of a reading consultant, we were also made responsible for the teacher's guides.
Another activity of our small staff was reviewing children's books for the Saturday Review of Literature. Every month a brief (five hundred-word) essay had to be written, as well as reviews of children's books related to the topic that the essay established. We all contributed the reviews and took turns writing the essays. For some time thereafter, whenever I wrote nonfiction I produced five hundred words.
The teaching was of two kinds. I was given responsibility for evening courses in language arts and children's literature by the Graduate Programs (Teacher Education) Division, and I participated with other members of the Publications Division in conducting the Writers' Lab. My graduate-student's knowledge of child development theory and psychodynamic concepts found good use in both settings and I continued to learn by reading. Over the years I developed a special interest in the prereading child and in picture books, which I came to think of as the literary invention of the twentieth century. Adding M.A. thesis advisement to my list of activities, I continued at Bank Street on a regular but part-time basis until the summer of 1970, when we left New York City for Michigan.
Of all these activities it was the Writers' Lab that, and most appropriately, was responsible for my initiation as a published writer. The Writers' Lab met weekly and most sessions were devoted to critiquing members' writings as they were read aloud. From time to time editors, agents, publishers, and friendly authors would be invited guests. On one such occasion, when it was my night to read, Virginie Fowler, who was children's book editor at Knopf, was the visitor. My story, "The Mean Man," told of a disagreeable fellow who arrives in town, antagonizes his neighbors, and leaves. The manuscript interested Miss Fowler, and I was invited to submit it for publication.
Despite this auspicious start the story could not be made to arrive at a workable ending and the project was set aside. Fortunately I had another, less problematic manuscript to offer. "It's Spring," She Said, a simple telling of the way spring comes to the city, became my first published work. Looking back on the story it is interesting to see that when I wrote it I used intersecting story lines as a device for conveying the simultaneity of events. I was to do something similar in A Gathering of Days when I wrote it as a journal and the technique became even more prominent in Brothers of the Heart.
Atha Tehon designed the book, and Julie Maas, who lived in downtown Manhattan, as I did, became its illustrator. I believe it marked a first, or early, venture for each of the three of us. It is interesting that we have all stayed on in the roles associated with that book but we have never worked on the same project again. "It's Spring," She Said has been out of print for some time now. But every once in a while, when I visit a school, a librarian will show me a copy, very well-used, and ask if I will sign it. Apparently there are some places where reading this story aloud has become a springtime tradition.
During the mid-1960s I worked on a number of writing projects. Some were published, such as Just Think! and Joe Finds a Way, both written with Betty Miles; others were not. But I learned something from my struggles with each and every one of them and, in several cases, themes and story ideas that were not resolvable then turned up in later works. It was at this time, too, that I began to explore the history of the old New Hampshire farmhouse that my husband's parents had purchased in 1941 and used each year thereafter during summer vacations.
The town of Holderness, New Hampshire, does not have a large public library. The redbrick building that houses it has wide steps made of marble at the front but there is not much space for parking between this attractive entrance and the busy two lane road on which it stands, which is also the town's Main Street. It is my recollection that ours was the only car in the parking area on the late midsummer afternoon when my husband and I decided to make a quick stop there before heading home for dinner. The morning had been his part of the day and we had climbed halfway up Mount Moosilauke and back. In the afternoon, my part, we had gone to Woodsville, which was the county seat. I had become curious about the history of the house and I had the idea that the thing to do was to examine the county records. In order to do this we would have to have the deed to the property and, in anticipation of our visit that summer, my father-in-law had brought the needed document along when they came up from the city.
"Dear," said the woman seated at the desks "if you knew how many summer people come in thinking they'll find something . . ."
But we were lucky. In the space of a few hours we were able to establish that the house had been built in 1827 by the youngest of five brothers who belonged to a well-known local family. He had died, leaving the property to his wife and two infant daughters, just a few years after completing the house and clearing the nearest acres. The wife had subsequently remarried and it was by her second husband's name that the farm was locally known. Over the years parcels of land had been sold and bought back again as the family's fortunes had fallen and been regained.
When you learn so much in such a short time you invariably want to learn more. We speculated that if the builder of the house had all those nearby brothers the house might share a history with other houses in the area. Would the town library have any information about the family, we wondered? And they did—a whole privately published genealogical study that included a few anecdotes and several references to names, and also locations, with which we were familiar.
Once again, libraries became important in my life as, back in New York City, I pursued my newfound interest in New Hampshire's history. Wonderful things, such as a collection of New Hampshire legends compiled in the mid-nineteenth century by Mrs. Gore and Mrs. Moody, were to be found in the American History Room of the great Forty-second Street library. Memoirs and reminiscences, biographies and autobiographies became interesting for what they told of childhood in nineteenth-century New England. Novels and magazine stories gave further hints as to the sorts of things people cared about—the sorts of details they noticed—and how they thought they talked. I became aware of the differences between life as it was lived in the larger centers, such as Boston or Salem or Portsmouth, and in rural areas not many miles away.
I had no intention of writing a book at first. I was just curious. What had life been like, I wondered, when the house had been new and a young New Hampshire family had taken pride in it? What did they eat? What did they wear? What did the children learn in school and what were their teachers like? It might have been easier to find answers to questions about presidents and politics. But this was more fun.
It is important to stress that this had become a kind of hobby for me, something I was able to pursue with an amateur's interest. After all, these were the years of teaching, child rearing, dog walking; the years of involvement in the development of the Bank Street Readers, as they were getting to be known, and work on several independent stories, some of which I read at Writers' Lab sessions. I did not work on the New Hampshire project regularly, and perhaps the very fact that I came on the idea of a New Hampshire book slowly and gradually, and then worked on it slowly and gradually, gave me useful opportunity to reflect on what was happening in the story; to create and also correct. And of course I loved the research!
I gleaned information from sources as different and disparate as John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Snow Bound" and William Garrison's Liberator. The more I read, the more I wanted to know. As I wasn't working against a deadline or even aware that I was Writing a Book I went on and on, filling notebooks, visiting Sturbridge Village, looking at quilts. I made lists of first names and last names as they appeared on school rolls, gravestones, merchants' account books, and irate letters to editors of small-town newspapers. It was quite a while before I began to think that I might have a book on my hands. Then it took me several more years before I was able to settle on the journal form.
In the summer of 1970 we moved from New York City to Ann Arbor, Michigan. For several years I worked (two or three days a week) at the Child Development Project under the leadership of Selma Fraiberg. Then, in 1973, I exchanged that position for one with the School of Education, where I taught children's literature until 1980. When I had time I continued my research. It is only fair to say that, as I had already begun the writing of the book, it might have been wiser to make that task my focus. But the research was much, much easier to do. Besides, I had discovered the seemingly infinite resources of the University of Michigan libraries and I was delighted with the new material I was able to find. At the Clements Library, for example, they had actual copies of Noah Webster's blue-back spellers, newspapers from New Hampshire communities relevant to my story, and a copy of a nineteenth-century book of advice to mothers. It was exciting to hold these materials in my hands and to think that people very like the characters I was developing for my story had read these very pages, had held these books in their hands. Libraries! Libraries! It is not that I have remained the voracious reader that I was as a child but rather that there is something about being in the presence of so many books that I find satisfying. One hour easily turns into many whether I have gone to find a book for vacation reading, look up a practical matter, or explore a new idea. So perhaps it is especially appropriate and meet that one of the major awards presented me for A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-32 came from the Children's Services Division of the American Library Association.
"How did it feel to win the Newbery?" Children ask the question when I visit schools, and grown-ups ask it when I speak at conferences. There is no way, really, to answer. I can only say that I had never thought of it as existing in any possible connection with myself and then, in the peculiar way that such things happen, after I won it I think it took quite a while before I could really comprehend the honor's implications and the difference it would make.
By that singular event I had been converted into a Recognized Author. Thereafter I would be invited to speak at conferences and meetings all across the country, would be included in various biographical dictionaries and reference works (including this one), would be asked to autograph books in bookstores and make visits to schools. Because I was a Newbery winner, what I had to say about children's literature was more interesting to more people! I resolved to take advantage of this and I have appreciated the opportunities to travel, to meet others in the field, to belong. Also, and not the least of my rewards, I was in a better position to write the kinds of books I like, including historical fiction, which tends not to be a favorite with the business side of publishing because of its bad reputation in the matter of sales.
As for the medal itself I often take it along with me when I visit schools. Teachers are usually more impressed than students, who point out correctly that the medal is a lot less shiny than the sticker on the book and, also true, that it is not made of gold. When I give them the medal to pass around the class, I can see that they like its substantial heft and size and I tell them then to look at the back of the medal as well as the front. There they will see a man holding a book, and a boy and a girl. I explain that the figure of the man represents Mr. Frederick Melcher, who, in 1921, initiated a medal honoring authors of children's literature. But, I add, I like to think of it as reminding us that grown-ups and children together take part in children's books.
While people are looking at the medal I usually take the opportunity to say two things more: that athletic activities are not the only ones that get rewarded by medals, and that the hope of receiving a medal should not be the reason for doing what one does. These ideas, although somewhat contradictory, are both important to me.
Not long after becoming a Newbery winner I attended a gathering which included a Caldecott winner. "You know," he told me, only half seeming to smile, "getting these medals hasn't turned out very luckily for a lot of people." Perhaps it was because the comment seemed so odd and out of place that I remembered it. But it is true that for me, and not having much to do with luck one way or the other, the decade ushered in by my receipt of the Newbery Medal was only in part a good one. I knew both sadness and tragedy in those years, and learned to tell the difference. But the good parts came first.
The Bentley Library at the University of Michigan is the kind of place that scholars dream about. Its main room is furnished with spacious oak tables. One entire glass wall looks out on a sculpture garden so arranged that even in winter—even in winter in Michigan, which is long and bleak and bare—the space has a kind of beauty. Among my libraries the Bentley is a favorite, a wonderful place to work. What took me there was another piece of historical fiction, this one to be set in Michigan at the time it became a state.
When Clare Costello, the Scribner editor responsible for the publication of A Gathering of Days, had first suggested a second book to take the story further, I had thought of another New England book, one which would perhaps take up the figure of the peddler as its leading character. However I soon discovered a more relevant interest in Michigan's history. By that time we had lived in Ann Arbor for ten years but I knew only the most ordinary facts about its early days. This would be an opportunity to find out about the settlement of the Middle West, a region where many people live but whose history is pretty much ignored and about which very little is taught in most American schools.
Actually, I began my work on the Michigan book in the Ypsilanti Historical Society, in a room set aside as a library. I was dependent on others to take me there, and home, for I had broken a leg in a sidewalk fall that winter and could neither walk far nor drive. One morning I came on a map of the area drawn by Bela Hubbard, a nineteenth-century cartographer who had explored the region and made maps for the use of prospective settlers. This particular map showed the precise location of a town I had not even known about. That afternoon, I happened to look down as my friend drove us across the Huron River using a modern bridge. Bela Hubbard's map had been so good that I could recognize the site, the very place where that town had been. When it came time to write Brothers of the Heart I used my impression of this setting when I described the fictional Millfield as being "set on a modest plain, crooked in the river's arm."
But Ypsilanti's materials only got me started. The major part of the work was done at the Bentley. As a library it is devoted to Michigan history, and although there are many books on the subject the most interesting part of the collection is its maps, diaries, public documents, town histories, and letters. There are not only individual letters but entire sets of family letters—letters sent and answers received as pioneer farmers and settlers reported back to their families in the East, and each side saved its share. At the Bentley I was able to read the detailed field notes kept by the same Bela Hubbard, and among his materials I discovered a box filled with small notebooks that contained handwritten entries reporting on years of weather. They must have been written all at the same time. The handwriting doesn't change, the way it does, little by little, over the years, and the color of the ink throughout the books is all the same faded brown. It looked to me as if Hubbard had gone back over all of his notebooks and other records to locate just this information—how cold it was, how warm; wind from which direction; sun, fair, clouds or rain—and I was determined to use it. When I say (page 62, Brothers of the Heart) that, in 1837, at Mackinac Island on the tenth of December, although the temperature had fallen to two degrees below zero the night before, "the sun made the wintry day quite pleasant," that is a matter of record.
The course of this book's composition was slowed by my mother's illness and then her death in 1982. Cancer is a cruel disease. It was hard to watch the decline of this once vibrant and keenly intelligent woman and there was nothing that could be done about her worsening helplessness and incapacity. Here was someone who had continued to work professionally all through her seventies. Here was someone who, at the age of eighty, had single-handedly prepared and hosted a lavish party to show her pleasure in her daughter's Newbery Medal. And here was that very daughter, unable to do a single thing that would really help. So I visited every day.
Altogether I spent four years on Brothers of the Heart: A Story of the Old Northwest, 1837-1838, two on the research and two on the writing. At the same time I was engaged in preparing a new picture book for publication. It would be called Martin's Hats and Marc Simont had agreed to do the illustrations. Martin is a small boy with a hat collection, and as the book goes on he becomes an engineer, a chef, a farmer. He is always in charge, and always competent. The changes take place as he puts on one hat after another from his hat collection. It is clear to me now that Martin is the direct descendent of another small, fictional boy, one whose story I had attempted years ago but had not been able to finish. Similarly, there is no doubt in my mind but that the struggle between the crippled protagonist of Brothers of the Heart and his father is related to difficult father-son relationships that I had attempted to tell about some twenty years before in early, unpublished works.
"How long does it take you to write a book?" I find that question nearly impossible to answer. It all depends on what you mean by "write." But I am almost certain that it takes a whole lot longer than any non-writer imagines!
After the work on Brothers of the Heart, indeed before it was finished, there came a time when libraries were no use at all and their knowledge failed us. Our son, who was married and had become a photographer, was discovered to have cancer. Diagnosed at first as being treatable, it proved both untreatable and intractable. The illness ran its course in something less than a year; three seasons' worth. Although he was desperately sick at the time, he was able to be home from the hospital for his thirtieth birthday. We celebrated it with his best friends and the closest parts of the family present. Five days later he died.
It is astonishing to me to realize that four of my picture books have been published since that time and that two more are being illustrated now. I have given many lectures, visited many schools, and worked on another story. We have moved from the house where we used to live, and we have left behind us the year and then the decade in which our son was alive. We who were his family are sad for ourselves, because we miss him so, and most of all we are sad for him because of all he missed.
You do not get over such sadness, I have found, but you do get used to it. You get used to it, but slowly. While that is happening or because it is, you begin to enjoy things like friendships, sunsets, jokes that are funny (and some that are not). Good things happen and you appreciate them. You are proud when your daughter embarks on graduate work in the field of education (how her grandmother would have welcomed that!), pleased by her marriage, and follow with interest the ideas and activities of her husband. Your daughter-in-law marries again and this, too, makes you glad. Still, there are times when you have to give yourself a good strong talking to, just to keep on going. But you do.
Of all my books, Old Henry, with illustrations by Stephen Gammell, has won the most friends for itself. It's the story of an eccentric man who moves into a dilapidated house in a traditional town. The neighbors expect him to repair the house but it doesn't even occur to him to do so. Disputes and arguments break out. He leaves. The story is told in rhyme, so several pages after his departure the neighbors realize that, "His house looks so empty, so dark in the night. / Having him gone doesn't make us more right." At the same time Henry, wherever he is, has realized that he misses his house and yes, even the neighbors. He writes a letter proposing compromise. There the book ends.
I have received many packets containing whole classrooms-full of letters to Henry. Most readers say that he should come back. Some say they will help him clean up; some tell him this is his last chance. It pleases me to think that people are liking this book and thinking about it. One of the reasons this makes me so glad is that this story is, of course, what came of that "Mean Man" story of so many years ago, the one I couldn't complete.
The idea for The Heroine of the Titanic: A Tale Both True and Otherwise of the Life of Molly Brown did not come from an earlier book or story but from a visit to the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver, Colorado, a number of years ago. The character of this sad but funny lady interested me, and I thought that some of the stories told about her were wonderful.
"She'd make a great book," I said to my husband as we left the well-restored house. "But not for children," I added.
Am I surprised or was it to be expected that eventually I'd get back to Molly Brown, or that she'd catch up with me? In the spring of 1987 I spent five days doing nothing but research in Denver and came back with many vivid impressions and a lot of information. This was not at all the way I had done the research for my other books, but this story was different and shorter, being almost like a ballad, something like a tale. With the addition of some made-up episodes—Molly herself was a great confabulator—the help of a wonderful editor, and illustrations by Tennessee Dixon, my "Tale Both True and Otherwise" has turned itself into a book. I had a good time working on it and I think it is true to the spirit of Molly Brown, if not all the facts.
When I was a little girl my mother and her two sisters used to tell stories about growing up in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. They had an uncle who sometimes called two hansom cabs to take himself home at night. There would be one for himself, they remembered, and one for his hat. One of my aunts, a tomboy when she was young, used to hitch rides by hanging onto the back of ice wagons while wearing roller skates. There were other stories too. I don't know if I can tell about them in the right way, but I am going to try. Meanwhile, it has been necessary to learn more about the place, Brooklyn, and the time, the early 1900s, of which I intend to write. Once again I am asking questions: what did people wear? what did they teach in school? what sorts of things made them happy? what was happening in their world? One of my aunts, now ninety-three years old, has been able to answer some of my questions, but not all. So these last two years I've been in libraries again—some in Ann Arbor, some in New York—not yet satisfied that I have got it figured out.
It's unfortunate that you can't read real newspapers anymore, just the microfilm copies rolling noisily by. So, at the Graduate Library of the University of Michigan, I have spent a lot of time lately, with my neck at an awkward angle, reading, reading, reading. When I visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard Street in New York City our daughter, who teaches at a high school nearby, joined me. And, at the Ann Arbor Public Library, in bound copies of St. Nicholas magazine for the years 1906-1909, I found several winning poems submitted by a young Edna St. Vincent Millay to its monthly competition.
Appropriately enough, my cycle of libraries concludes as it began, not in a huge repository of technological data but in a people-sized public library where people come to sit and read, look things up, check books out, find answers to their questions. As one might expect, it has computers instead of card catalogues, and there are electronic devices at the checkout desk instead of the stamps and stamp pads that I used to admire so much. Affection, interest, and habit draw me over and over again to the children's room. Today a former student attends the librarian's desk. And sure enough, as I stand there now, a four-year-old and her mother enter hand in hand. They have come to the library to find the books they love.
Blos contributed the following autobiographical update in 2004:
Many things have changed since 1991 when my contribution to Something about the Author Autobiography Series, volume 11, was published. The cell phone has become ubiquitous, three presidential elections have taken place (and, as I write, a fourth is imminent), and the United States has endured the shock of a terrorist attack and the tragedy of war. Global warming has become an acknowledged fact, an increasing number of transactions are accomplished electronically—and many readers of this essay were born.
Closer to home, three events warranting celebration have occurred. In 1992 and 1998 our two grandsons were born, and in the year that recently ended, my husband and I observed the fiftieth anniversary of our 1953 wedding. Otherwise I would say that the past decade has neither encompassed dramatic events nor led to major changes. Nico and Lucas are as fine a pair of boys as ever delighted a grandmother's eyes. I enjoyed a particularly proud moment when I escorted Nico to the library to receive his first library card and I look forward to doing the same for Lucas. Perhaps—as I did with Nico—I will make a small ceremony of the event by reading aloud "At the Library," one of the later chapters of Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme, when we get home.
Although I regard the 1990s as a rather fallow time for me as a writer of children's books, looking back—and counting!—reveals a rather different story! It appears that since 1991, I have written and published seven picture books (two of which dealt with historical figures), and researched, written, and published Brooklyn Doesn't Rhyme, the novel set in 1907 to which I have just referred. Talks given at professional meetings have ranged rather widely as to content. Thus "You Be the Mommy: The Developmental Importance of Imagined Experience" was addressed to psychologists and links drama, fiction, and the free play of children. Its central thesis is that "the capacity to imagine is as distinctively human as the opposable thumb and quite possibly as important." Another paper, equally but differently interested in the human experience, looks inward. "PRIVAT [sic] KEEP OUT!" appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, summer 2000, and examines the diary as a literary device. The title refers to the almost instinctive defense of the diary in real life. "45 Years Later and Still in Love with Picture Books," for early childhood educators, takes up the picture book as a literary genre and suggests that it is the literary invention of the twentieth century. "Noah Webster, Ann Arbor and Me" is a recent tribute to the public and university libraries of Ann Arbor, Michigan, which are a significant feature of the city that has been our home since the summer of 1970.
For me, as a writer, the stand-out experience of the years since 1991 occurred in 1999. That is when Wild Swan Theater, a local company known for the excellence of the plays it presents to children and young people, invited me to dramatize one of my books. I told them that I had not written a play since high school. But, I said, if they would take the chance, so would I.
Brothers of the Heart, set in pioneer Michigan, was the book chosen for dramatization. It's about a boy with a "gimpy leg" and at the center of the story is his wilderness experience with an elderly Ottawan woman. There were esthetic and dramatic reasons for our choice, and two reasons of a practical nature: the size of the cast required and the fact that Michigan students, who study Michigan history in fourth grade, would make up most of our audiences. Working with Wild Swan proved to be the most interesting, stimulating, and enjoyable collaboration I've enjoyed since the mid-1960s when Betty Miles and I teamed up to write People Read, the second pre-primer of the Bank Street-Macmillan Readers.
Soon after I began working on the Brothers of the Heart dramatization I discovered, to my delight and surprise, that plays and picture books are really very much alike in that neither permits verbal description, both depend on dialogue and action, and both proceed by scenes! These were things I knew about from writing and reviewing picture books, and teaching about them. So I had some useful skills and valuable past experience to bring to my new assignment after all!
When rehearsals began, I attended nearly all of them. This gave me new insights into what makes a play as well as a chance to do some "fine tuning" of the script. Once, when I tried to eliminate a small scene, I was over-ruled by the cast. That scene, they said, contained some of their favorite lines and it would be a big mistake to eliminate them. So the lines stayed in.
The play grew in interest and dramatic quality as costumes, sets, and music were added. And then it was opening night! I could feel the audience being drawn into the story, and when I realized that the person seated next to me, a stranger, was crying, I was persuaded that my story evoked real emotions. The cast called me to join them on stage after the final curtain, and amidst hugs from the actors and applause from the audience, I was presented with a wonderful armful of flowers. Although Brothers of the Heart enjoyed several revivals over the next few years, the first production was—and remains—the best!
In 2002, as an "Author, Teacher, and Advocate of Children and Literature," I received an Honorary Doctorate from Bank Street College of Education in New York City. My friend, Betty Miles, wrote a poem for me of which the first two lines were, "Congratulations as you get / this honorary doctorate." In glorious sunlight, a brief procession led from the College to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where the ceremony was to be held. It was an unforgettable occasion, and I am proud, indeed, to be honored in that way by Bank Street. It is where I began my teaching and my writing and gained my lasting appreciation of the worth and value of children's books. Bank Street's influence pervades many of the things I do today.
So it's not just rhetoric that when people ask me where I am from, I answer that I now live in Ann Arbor but I am from New York. After thirty years or so, that East Coast identity is still important to me and I will never say New York City because, as a New Yorker, it's obvious that the city is what is meant. But it is also true that since 1987, when we moved from a large house in Ann Arbor's campus area to an apartment that's one block from City Hall, I've become involved in a number of activities involving the city itself. In some five or six years ago, when a deteriorated parking structure was to be demolished and replaced, I became a member of the Downtown Public Art Committee (locally known as DPAC) in thinking about the replacement structure and how art might be made part of its design. At one of our many meetings I proposed that numerals representing symbol systems other than the Arabic, beyond the Roman, and including Braille, be integrated with the structure's more conventional signage. Placed on the elevator landings of each floor of the new building they would, I argued, be something that would be visually and cognitively beautiful to all and accessible to children. This particular set of ideas was mine, to be sure. But they definitely derive from the teaching and learning of my Bank Street years.
More recently the rehabilitation of a small downtown park a few blocks from our home inspired me to suggest that it become the site of a summertime series of outdoor readings and performances for young children. Offered free of charge, these events could, and would, be a declaration of the city's commitment to its children. These events would, I predicted, demonstrate that words, music, dance, and drama bring people together. And they did! The program has been a great success and a true community effort: the mayor opens the first program of the season, the presenters contribute their services, and bookstores, with equal but different generosity, provide books so that each child who attends a program receives a brand new book. Free! A local dealer in antique rugs lends the iconic magic carpet whose unrolling signals the start of each program, and other local businesses have contributed in other ways.
But my assignment here is to say something about myself as an author. Making it difficult is that there has been a hiatus of several years and that the book on which I am presently working has been in the making for such a long time that I hesitate to say very much about it. Provisionally titled Dear Cousin Sallie, it is to join A Gathering of Days and Brothers of the Heart in the creation of a "geographical trilogy." Thus, mid-nineteenth century New Hampshire is the setting of the first of these books, the second book takes place in pioneer Michigan, and the California Gold Rush provides the new book with its setting. In each case characters are brought forward from one book into the next, perhaps most significantly in the case of the presently evolving story.
And what will I do when, as it must, this project comes to an end? I like to say that I will cheerfully unplug my computer because writing is difficult for me, and I don't much enjoy the process. However, it is equally true that I love being an author! I feel fortunate to have been a writer of children's books for what has become a very long time, and there are still things I would like to put into stories. So here's what I think. I think I will probably return to stories once begun and since abandoned, but possibly I will start a new one. I will get out a yellow pad and some pencils (the computer comes later for me) and I will begin to write.
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