Eleanor Estes: Chronicler of the Family Story

by Claudia Mills

I came to Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center on a mission, as an avenging angel, if you will. My self-imposed charge: to defend an author I loved as a child, and continue to love, from criticism of her work that I felt was mistaken, or at least misguided.

EleanorEstesphotoyoungEleanor Estes (1906-1988) was one of the most highly acclaimed children’s authors of the mid-twentieth century. I grew up reading her classic stories about the Moffats and the Pyes, and her hauntingly beautiful, iconic tale of childhood bullying, The Hundred Dresses. Born in West Haven, Connecticut, and launching her career as a children’s librarian in the New Haven Free Public Library, Estes reaped three Newbery Honors in three successive years for The Middle Moffat (1942), Rufus M (1943), and The Hundred Dresses (1944) and finally went on to win the John Newbery Medal, awarded for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, for Ginger Pye (published in 1951), followed by a sequel, Pinky Pye, in 1958. Praised for her microscopically careful observation of the inner life of children, she’s invariably heralded as a leading figure in any discussion of the genre of the “family story.” But she’s also been criticized for what is taken to be her failed attempts, in her later books, to provide more of a sustained and satisfying plot.

The two books about the Pyes (Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye) differ notably from the three earlier books about the Moffats in shifting from an episodic format to a plot structure built around a single, unifying dramatic question, in both cases involving the solving of a mystery. Who stole the Pyes’ dog Ginger Pye? What happened to the little owl lost at sea that ends up becoming Owlie Pye? In both books, the solution to the mystery is extremely obvious, with insistent foreshadowing of the ultimate resolution and blatant, repetitive telegraphing of every clue. This has been widely regarded by adult critics as unsatisfying.

eleanorestesgingerpyecoverThus, John Rowe Townsend complains that, in contrast to the Moffat family stories, “[i]n Ginger Pye  . . . there are plots of mystery and detection which call for a dramatic build-up, a logical progression toward climax, which the author is infuriatingly unable or unwilling to provide.” [1] Virginia L. Wolf writes that while Ginger Pye “more effectively focuses on a problem and builds suspense than do any of the Moffat books, [i]t does not, however, as the critics have charged, offer the tightly constructed plot of a successful mystery. . . .” [2]

But as I read these two books, Estes isn’t trying and failing to provide a suspenseful mystery. Instead, both books can be read as positively cautioning readers against traditional storytelling techniques, with their “dramatic build-up” and “logical progression toward climax.” Read carefully, both books suggest that suspenseful storytelling can be actually dangerous, its risks greater than its rewards. Estes shows her characters themselves engaging in sensationalist, overly dramatic storytelling with near-disastrous results: for the missing owl (in Pinky Pye) and missing dog (in Ginger Pye. As Papa insists upon theatrical revelation of the discovered location of the little owl, he prolongs the telling of the story to such an extent that the owl is meanwhile endangered by the predatory kitten; as Jerry and Rachel Pye fashion a sensationalist account of Ginger’s kidnapping by an “unsavory character,” they misdirect the police and fail to notice the actual, far more humdrum, culprit. Both books, then, contain within themselves material for a critique of exactly the kind of suspenseful fiction Estes is chided for not providing.

I wondered, however, if Estes herself would share my reading of her books. Perhaps the critics were correct, and she tried and failed to provide more satisfying suspense. Or perhaps I was correct, and her philosophy of storytelling pointed her in a very different direction.

eleanorestesrufuscoverSo I spent an enchanted week the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center examining Eleanor Estes’s papers – drafts of speeches she gave throughout her career and extensive editorial correspondence from Ginger Pye’s editor, the legendary Margaret McElderry – in search of support for my claims that Estes did not try and fail to provide suspenseful storytelling in her Pye books, but chose not to do so because of her commitment to a different way of engaging with young readers.

And find it I did.

The collection contains, for the most part, only letters sent to Estes from her editors, rather than letters by Estes herself, so scholars have to read between their lines to recover what Estes must have written to provoke these replies. I learned that Estes apparently considered not resolving the mystery of Ginger Pye’s disappearance at all! McElderry writes to her, as the work is in progress, “Not having read any of it, it is a little difficult to say anything about the problem of who stole him, but I am inclined to agree with you that children reading the book would probably want to know who the culprit is.” McElderry also writes to reassure Estes that certain scenes are not too frightening for children: “I can well imagine the qualms that any author feels at this point but I am perfectly sure you should have none of them. The tramp chapter isn’t the least bit too scary, for look what our modern children have become used to from the radio, television, and the movies. And I expect children will always try to climb rocky cliffs whether they read about it first or not, so that you will not be held responsible for any bruises or cuts.” Indeed, Estes’s lack of interest in traditional plot was so great that in a speech to the Onondaga Library System, she admitted, “Sometimes I write a whole book first, like The Moffats, and then put the plot in.”

The clearest answers to my questions about Estes’s literary method came in Box 16, Folder 201, which contained a sheaf of 4 x 6 index cards with handwritten answers to interview questions for a talk at Albertus Magnus College in 1973. In response to the query “Do you think that violence in children’s literature can psychologically damage a ‘normal’ child?” she first problematizes the whole idea of a “normal child,” noting that children have a wide range of sensitivities; she then confesses that she was one of the more sensitive, who tended “to shy away from extreme violence in life, and on the screen and stage. Even not look when the bad man came on.” She goes on to say, “I am not an escapist. But in books for children . . . I don’t see the necessity of depicting life as it really is.” For Estes, then, it was permissible, even commendable, to prioritize comfort over eleanoresteshundreddressscoverdanger, and to center her story less on what happens than on children’s quiet and wry observations in response.

Of course, along the way I found much, much more. What a window into a now-vanished world of publishing is provided by the yellow Western Union telegram from Margaret McElderry with its all-caps shout of joy: CHEERS FOR GINGER. SEND EXPRESS IN BOX. INTEREST AT BOILING POINT. LOVE MARGARET.

Struggling writers may be cheered to know that Estes, now working for the New York Public Library, showed the manuscript of The Moffats to her supervisor, the formidable Miss Anne Carroll Moore before whose pronouncements authors and editors trembled, only to receive this sole comment: “Well, Mrs. Estes, now that you have gotten this book out of your system, go back to being a good children’s librarian”! (Estes reports that Miss Moore had earlier found it difficult to forgive her for marrying fellow librarian Rice Estes: “she did not like her children’s librarians to get married.”) Once Ginger Pye received the Newbery Medal, however, a friend of Estes’s wrote to her of Miss Moore’s quite different public account of their relationship: now Estes had “risen to the top in the esteem of Annie Carolly Moorey. This great friend through all your struggling years, this inexhaustible dealer-outer of encouragement, has finally had her judgment vindicated. I nearly vomited.”

And then there were the pages of scribbled notes with their wonderful revelation of how Estes gathered her ideas in wandering, random bursts of creativity:

Once when I was a dog

A Lion I knew

The story of the pants

These are not the notes of someone who prioritizes the construction of tightly ordered plots, but someone who celebrates the shifting, fragmented way that children look upon and inhabit the fleeting world of childhood.

Claudia Mills is Associate Professor emerita in the Philosophy Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a frequent visiting professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Most of her essays on children’s literature explore ethical and philosophical themes in children’s books.  She is also the author of over fifty books of her own for young readers, including most recently The Trouble with Ants (Knopf, 2015, launch title of the Nora Notebooks series about a girl who wants to grow up to be a myrmecologist) and Simon Ellis, Spelling Bee champ (Farrar, 2015, the fourth book in the Franklin School Friends series).  Claudia Mills is a 2015 recipient of the Billie M. Levy Travel and Research Grant.

Notes:

[1] Townsend, John Rowe. “Eleanor Estes.”  In A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1971: 79-85.

[2] Wolf, Virginia L., “Eleanor Estes,” in American Writers for Children, 1900-1960, ed. John Cech, Detroit: Gale, 1983: 146-56.

Connecticut Children’s Book Fair 2015: This Weekend!

Lowly-reading_smSmiles, laughter, children’s books and their authors await you at the 24th Annual Connecticut Children’s Book Fair happening this Saturday, November 14 and Sunday, November 15 at the University of Connecticut.  The fun begins at 10:00am.  Check out this year’s exciting schedule of Authors and Illustrators featuring Ross MacDonald, Wendell Minor, Florence Minor, Cynthia Lord, P. J. Lynch, Jane Sutcliffe, Pamela Zagarenski, and Connecticut’s-own Barbara McClintock.  Parking, directions, and links to local attractions, including the Ballard Museum of Puppetry, are available on the Book Fair website.  Drop in to hear distinguished illustrators discuss their work, browse the latest releases, attend storytime and other events throughout the day including a visit by Clifford the Big Red Dog!

The Connecticut Children’s Book Fair is a program of the University of Connecticut Libraries and the UConn Co-op. Proceeds from sales at the event are used for the growth of the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection in the Archives and Special Collections at the University of Connecticut Libraries.

The Story of Richard Scarry’s Busytown with Special Guest Lecturer Huck Scarry

ScarryBusiestpeopleeverP7Busytown, the bustling small town and home to such resident characters as Huckle Cat, Lowly Worm, Mr. Frumble, Police Sergeant Murphy, Mr. Fixit, and Hilda Hippo, was first depicted in the book Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World.  The fictional town was a central feature in several Richard Scarry books and has been depicted through time in a variety of formats, including games, toys, activity books, and an animated series.

Richard Scarry, the popular and much-loved American author and illustrator of over 300 children’s books, is known for such classics as Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever released in 1963, Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World (1965), Richard Scarry’s Storybook Dictionary (1966), and What Do People Do All Day (1968).  Selling millions of copies during his lifetime, many Scarry books, though regularly updated and re-issused, have never been out of print.  Several have have been translated into over 20 languages.

Join us tomorrow evening, Tuesday November 10, 6:00pm for a special guest lecture Huck Scarry 2The Story of Richard Scarry’s Busytown” with Scarry’s son, Richard “Huck” Scarry II. Also an artist and author of children’s books, Huck Scarry published a new Scarry picture book for the first time in the U.S. since the elder Scarry’s death in 1994.  With Richard Scarry’s Best Lowly Worm Book Ever! Huck Scarry began a season of re-releasing Scarry’s classics to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Richard Scarry’s best-known book, Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever.  The guest lecture event will take place in the Class of 1947 Room, Homer Babbidge Library, University of Connecticut in Storrs.  The lecture is free and open to the public and is presented in conjunction with the 24th Annual Connecticut Children’s Book Fair taking place at UConn on Saturday and Sunday, November 14 and 15, 2015.

Richard Scarry’s personal papers and archives, preserved and available in Archives and Special Collections at the Dodd Research Center, document the creation, production, and distribution of his books for children. The archives are part of the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection and contain materials and correspondence concerning Scarry’s early work, with Western Publishing and Little Golden Books, beginning in the 1950s. The bulk of the material in the archives concerns the works produced by Scarry during his later association with Random House.

Esphyr Slobodkina – Modernist (Children’s Book) Illustrator/Author

by JoAnn Conrad, Recipient of the 2015 Billie M. Levy Travel and Research Grant

Part of my ongoing research into children’s picturebooks of the mid-twentieth century has to do with the ways in which the work of illustrators has insinuated itself into the public memory even as the names of individual artists may be relatively obscure. This is the case with the rare female artist and, particularly, Esphyr Slobodkina, as her influence is inversely proportional to the obscurity of her name.  “Esphyr Slobodkina . . .helped pave the way for the acceptance of abstract art in the United States and translate[d] European modernism into an American idiom.”[1]

fig2hats02fig1hatsrev

A simple and serendipitous anecdote demonstrates this: While researching her papers at UConn’s Archives and Special Collections this summer, I was living across the street from the UConn Bookstore. One day, I noticed a display in the window announcing “Caps for Sale” [Fig. 1], clearly alluding to one of Slobodkina’s most popular books of the same name [Fig. 2]. The power of the sale poster derives from and depends on the reference to the book, which is assumed to be automatic.

There is a fair amount about Slobodkina’s life and work available. The Finding Aid for the Slobodkina Papers at Archives and Special Collections provides a brief biography as does the website of the Esphyr Slobodkina Foundation.  The 2009 Rediscovering Slobodkina: A Pioneer of American Abstraction includes information on her life as well as her contributions to the art world, but the full biography has yet to be written.  Esphyr Slobodkina anticipated that it would be written, however, and drafted a comprehensive, detailed, 5-volume manuscript “Notes for a Biographer” which resides in her papers. The Slobodkina Papers contain much more than is in her books – things that would never be published but which give a researcher like me access to insights into the thoughts and motivations of the artist. One of the pleasures of this kind of archival research is not only this intimate and personal connection one makes across time, but also the unexpected revelations into the personality of the artist that informs her work. My intention here is to provide some of those “off the books” glimpses into the work and person – Esphyr Slobodkina.

Esphyr Slobodkina was born to a wealthy Russian-Jewish family in Russia before the Revolution.  Continue reading…

 

 

Archives At Your Fingertips: Teaching with Archives and Special Collections | Archives & Special Collections

littlemags01Introduce your class to primary sources from Archives and Special Collections, UConn’s only public archive that offers students opportunities to explore and experience original letters, diaries, photographs, maps, drawings, artists books, graphic novels, student newspapers, travel narratives, oral histories, and rare sound recordings to illuminate a given topic of study.  With over 40,000 linear feet of materials – located in the center of campus at the Dodd Research Center –  the Archives welcomes all visitors to its Reading Room, a quiet space to contemplate potentially transformative resources.  Continue reading

Emily Arnold McCully gets a new finding aid

A new finding aid is now available for the Emily Arnold McCully Papers.  The collection consists of sketches, dummies, research materials and artwork for eight of her books: The Taxing Case of the Cows,  the Divide,  Old Home Day,  Ballot Box Battle,  Ballerina Swan,  My Heart Glow,  Secret Seder, and  The Helpful Puppy.  Emily Arnold McCully, an American writer and illustrator, won the Caldecott Medal for U.S. picture book illustration in 1993, for Mirette on the High Wire which she also wrote.

Ballot Box Battle (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1996)

Ballot Box Battle (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).  All rights reserved.

 

She was born in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1939, and grew up in Garden City, New York. She attended Pembroke College, now a part of Brown University, and earned an M.A. in Art History from Columbia University. At Brown she acted in the inaugural evening of Production Workshop and other plays, co-wrote the annual musical, Brownbrokers, and earned a Phi Beta Kappa key.

 

In 1976, she published a short story in The Massachusetts Review. It was selected for the O’Henry Collection: Best Short Stories of the Year. Two novels followed:  A Craving in 1982, and  Life Drawing in 1986. In 2012, Ms. McCully published  Ballerina Swan with Holiday House Books for Young People, written by legendary prima ballerina Allegra Kent. It has received rave reviews from The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal and was praised in the “Talk of the Town” column in The New Yorker

Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux (New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010)

Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux (New York : Farrar Straus Giroux, 2010).  All rights reserved.

 

As an actor, she performed in Equity productions of Elizabeth Diggs’ Saint Florence at Capital Rep in Albany and The Vineyard Theater in New York City.  In addition to the Caldecott Award, Ms. McCully has received a Christopher Award for Picnic, the Jane Addams Award, the Giverney Award and an honorary doctorate from Brown University.

Curator to retire

As of June 30, 2015, Terri J. Goldich will retire from the University of Connecticut after a career of over 38 years with the UConn Libraries.  Ms. Goldich has had the good fortune to serve as the curator for the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection in Archives & Special Collections in a full-time capacity since February of 1998.  Care of the NCLC will be taken on by Kristin Eshelman, a highly skilled archivist currently on staff in the Archives.  Ms. Eshelman’s contact information is available on the website at http://doddcenter.uconn.edu/asc/about/staff.htm.

Book Launch for Dr. Katharine Capshaw

Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks (University of Minnesota Press).

Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks (University of Minnesota Press).

 

 

Dr. Capshaw’s latest book, Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks was published by University of Minnesota Press in 2014.  In it Dr. Capshaw “…draws on works ranging from documentary photography, coffee-table and art books, and popular historical narratives and photographic picture books for the very young.” (http://generalbooks.bookstore.uconn.edu/event/book-launch-katherine-capshaw).  Please join us on Wednesday, March 25, 2015 at 4:00pm at the UConn Co-op Bookstore, One Royce Circle, 101 Storrs Center, Storrs, CT 06268.  For more information call 860-486-8525.

 

Hilary Knight on HBO tonight

Kay Thompson's Eloise (New York : Simon and Schuster, 1955).  Illustrated by Hilary Knight.  Pg. 7.

Kay Thompson’s Eloise (New York : Simon and Schuster, 1955). Illustrated by Hilary Knight. Pg. 7.

 

 

 

 

At 9pm on March 23, 2015, HBO will present a documentary produced by Lena Dunham, titled It’s me, Hilary: the Man who Drew Eloise, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the first Eloise book.  Lena Dunham, now 28, bears a tattoo of Eloise that is visible at times during her appearances on the HBO show Girls, so Hilary Knight sent her a signed book and a letter asking Ms. Dunham to share Indian food with him.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Read the full LA Times story.  The Northeast Children’s Literature Collection holds some of Mr. Knight’s archival papers.  Don’t miss the show tonight at 9pm.

 

 

Unpublished Seuss manuscripts rediscovered

Random House announced yesterday that it will publish What pet should I get? which features the brother and sister from One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.  The manuscript and sketches were found in a box along with the original materials for at least two other books.  Random House will announce the publication dates for the other new releases later.

(The cover of a previously unknown Dr. Seuss book titled, What Pet Should I Get?)

Dr. Seuss’s widow, Audrey Geisel, set the box aside after her husband’s death in 1991, during a renovation of their home.  She and a longtime friend recently rediscovered the box, explaining in a statement to Random House:  “Ted always worked on multiple projects and started new things all the time — he was constantly drawing and coming up with ideas for new stories.”

ABC’s Good Morning America announced the story this morning as well as USA Today. 

What fantastic news for fans of Dr. Seuss.